Finding a copy of The New Yorker magazine in the middle of the West African bush never was easy. In Liberia in the 1970s, it nearly was impossible. In those days, living 120 miles inland from the coast and being limited to markets and shops that specialized in canned mackerel, Russian toilet paper and beer preserved with glycerin, browsing the newsstand wasn’t an option.
Occasionally I cadged a copy of the culturati’s Weekly Reader from expatriates living in Monrovia who had connections to the embassies or international agencies. Now and then a Peace Corps volunteer would have an issue to share, and there always was the possibility someone would step off PanAm 1 at Roberts Field with a copy tucked under an arm. But in the end, mail from the States was my most dependable source. The fact that the “latest” issues might be three months old wasn’t a problem. A story is a story, after all, and even essays and columns develop a strange, timeless quality when read so utterly out of context.
As the magazines were passed from hand to hand, everyone enjoyed the fiction, dissected articles about life “back home” and rolled their eyes over what passed for pressing issues in the US. The cartoons were favorites, of course, and apart from their ability to amuse us those cartoons served another, slightly unusual purpose. The running joke among workers from the States was that when we got to the point of not understanding New Yorker cartoons, it was time to head home to refresh our cultural ties and re-acquaint ourselves with the society to which we’d eventually have to return. One of the first things anyone learned when arriving in-country was that Broad Street, Monrovia, wasn’t Main Street, USA, but those of us who loved Liberia needed occasional New Yorker nudges to remind us of our roots.
Monrovia, Liberia ~ Lizzie Goodfriend
Today, no longer living in Liberia and with my copy of The New Yorker arriving dependably in my mailbox each week, I find the magazine still functions as a kind of cultural canary in the coal mine of my life. There are days when I look at the cover or cartoons and think, “What?”
Most recently I glanced at the November 2 issue, puzzled that a Halloween theme had been chosen for the cover when ghosts-and-goblins hilarity had been over for days. After a minute or so, I got the joke. The point wasn’t the kids trick-or-treating at the door. It was their parents who were of interest, half-hidden in the darkness, their faces barely visible in the spooky light of their Kindles.
“Unmasked” ~ by Chris Ware
The Kindle (and assorted knock-offs) is just one more in a growing list of electronic gadgets, cyber-services and social networking sites multiplying around us at a dizzying rate. Smart phones, mp3 players, GPS devices and game consoles abound, every one of them accompanied by breathless marketing campaigns designed to convince us these products are critical if we’re to fully participate in our brave new e-world.
The implications are clear. Without a newer phone, a smaller iPod, a larger memory or more pixels, we’re lost, doomed, condemned to wander forever through the unutterable monotony and blandness of ~ well, of whatever kind of life there was before the search for batteries, recharging devices and faster connections became part of our daily routine.
Actually, I remember that life. At the post office, I’d stand in line and chat with my neighbor. I swapped ice cream recommendations with folks at the grocerty store. I’d catch the eye of people I passed on the street. When I smiled, they’d smile back. I had acquaintances, and I had friends, and while I might forget the name of an acquaintance, I always knew the names of my friends.
Today, post office lines are filled with people talking on cell phones. Texters in grocery store lines might as well have “Do Not Disturb” signs posted. On the street, people continue to text. While friendships endure, “friend” is becoming a verb and “followers” are piling up, counters in some strange popularity game.
Even on The New Yorker cover, the upraised faces of the children reflect light from the homes of strangers. Focused on their “reading machines” and paying their children little mind, the multi-tasking parents are absorbed not in the pleasure and enjoyment of their children”s experience, but in the pursuit of their own goals. Like a husband texting while his wife is speaking or a businesswoman taking a cell phone call in the middle of a conversation, they are both “there” and “not there”, physically present yet strangely absent. It may be the greatest irony of technology. Marketed as a means for bringing people together, it can have quite the opposite effect, creating an eerie and unnerving isolation.
Some weeks ago, intrigued by Nora Ephron’s role as screenwriter for Julie and Julia, I picked up her book Wallflower at the Orgy. Her remarkable first lines seem relevant to my own ambivalance about our emerging realities.
“Some years ago, the man I am married to told me he had always had a mad desire to go to an orgy. Why on earth, I asked. Why not, he said. Because, I replied, it would be just like the dances at the YMCA I went to in the seventh grade – only instead of people walking past me and rejecting me, they would be stepping over my naked body and rejecting me…”
She goes on to compare the life of a journalist to that of the wallflower at the orgy – watching everyone else having a marvelous time doing every sort of inconceivable thing while she stands off to the side and takes notes.
As I watch the cyber-orgy swirl around me, Ms. Ephron’s description seems apt. Yes, I signed up for Facebook, but I’ve never completed my profile. Yes, I have a Twitter account, but I do little more than publicize blog postings and track WordPress outages. I have a cell phone, but not an iPod. I’ve learned to use a digital camera, but never have used the camera on my phone. I work with text every day, but never have texted. Like Ephron, I’m a wallflower, and perfectly content to watch most of the goings-on from the sidelines.
For centuries after Plato mentioned it in his Republic, the truth of his statement seemed self-evident: “Necessity is the Mother of Invention” Today, for good or for ill, we’ve turned Platonic wisdom on its head, choosing to devote ourselves to the proposition that “Invention is the Mother of Necessity.” And the gadget-makers have our number. If they invent it, we will come, dollars in hand, ready to invest ourselves in the next, best transformative technology toy, convinced it’s a necessity for life.
I’m no Luddite, and none of this is meant to suggest that Kindles are evil. Enjoying an iPod isn’t immoral, and texting isn’t a tool of the devil. All these bits of technology can be blessing as well as curse. They enable us to do things that would have been unimaginable even two decades ago, and few of us want to go back – least of all me, happily typing along on my blog.
On the other hand, it’s worth recognizing that all of our gizmos and gadgets, all our fancy programs and hyper-linked pages are nothing more than tools. Since the time of homo habilis, the tool-user has had to learn and re-learn a single critical lesson: we are the ones in control. We determine how tools will be used, and we are free to determine their value for our lives. Necessity has bred wonderful inventions, to be sure. But not every invention is wonderful, and even the most wonderful may not be necessary for the achievement of our goals.
Back in Monrovia, Liberian “blogger” and news entrepreneur Alfred Sirleaf continues to prove the point. Committed for years to providing information to a city plagued by the consequences of war, high prices, a surging refugee population, no dependable power grid and low literacy rates, he’s found the perfect invention for his task: chalk and a blackboard.
Each day in the heart of the city, he searches through newspapers, makes a few calls and sometimes fires up a generator for television access. Once he knows what’s important, he begins to post at his kiosk, combining words for the literate and symbols for those unable to read.
News on petrol prices, updates on UN peacekeeping forces, pleas to government for responsibility and promise-keeping ~ all of these appear on his blackboard in carefully lettered text. Referring to nearly everyone in his battered city, he says,
“Those who don’t have opportunity to buy newspaper, go on the Internet, who can’t afford to buy generator to buy TV – I do all the dirty work for them, and I just give them exactly what they want.”
In a nation recovering from the horrors of civil war, dependable news is necessary, and Mr. Sirleaf’s approach to providing it is inventive, to say the least. From his spot on Tubman Boulevard his one-man operation reaches thousands of citizens each day, armed with little more than a passion for communication, a blackboard and some chalk.
With all of our gizmos and gadgets, we should do as well.