Lessons from Sandy

While many are still without power and school is cancelled for an unprecedented sixth day in a row, the eastern Mid-Atlantic states are still recovering from Hurricane Sandy. As I noted in my first post-storm blog post, one of the largest disorientations I experienced was being cut off from the internet. An article in Friday’s New Jersey Star-Ledger gives a name to this phenomenon: “nomophobia,” the fear of being left without access to an internet-connected device (specifically a mobile device, but in a pinch even a desktop will do). An article by Allan Hoffman suggests that two-thirds of the population suffers from nomophobia and that there are actual treatment programs available. A decade ago no such phobia existed and some of us were only just beginning to hear about the World Wide Web. This is a fear born of our own engineering—the virtual world of our making has come to haunt us.

No doubt life is somewhat easier with the internet. One word will suffice to illustrate it: phonebook. When is the last time I looked something up in a phonebook? While pulling open a drawer beneath the accumulated phonebooks on the phone stand, I noticed how thick with dust they were. Even the cordless phone with its answering machine appeared just a little bit medieval to my cyber eyes. If this is evolution, we may be in trouble. Technology was envisioned as the liberator from labor, but we’ve clearly become its slaves. Don’t worry about the food spoiling in the refrigerator, get me back onto Facebook—now! My smartphone has a flashlight, several email apps, and can soothe me with its music. It is my rod and staff.

On a short drive to run an errand this weekend, I went by one of the few stores with power in the area. Their electronic marquee read “cell phones charged here.” The greatest service that could be offered to a cold, hungry population living in the dark.

One of the hallmarks said to have ended the Dark Ages was the printing press. Literature, on paper, could now be spread (mostly in the form of the Bible) from person to person until all of Europe would have access to sacred knowledge. That knowledge (and a great deal of nonsense) is now worshipfully cupped in the palm of my hand. As Hoffman notes, even the librarians were telling patrons not where to find books, but where to locate outlets. Robots fight our wars remotely, and wireless networks link us in a web far more valuable than that of the silk moth. And we have realized that even the creator of an entire universe can be held in a child’s hand.

In the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear

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