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The "Small World" Syndrome: The Underside of High Technology
Debra Shinder

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[Art by Martin Raskovsky]
Art by Martin Raskovsky

Has anyone noticed that our world is shrinking right before our eyes? "It's a small world" is a phrase casually thrown out in conversation, referring to the ways in which rapid advances in transportation and communication technologies have brought those on opposite sides of the globe so much closer together than they were a decade or two ago.

The connotation is almost always positive. Small worlds are good things. Technological progress is something to be pursued at all costs. Lightning-fast, omnipresent connectivity is not only desirable -- it's essential. We must have more and more and more: more cellular phones, more pagers, more fax machines, more ways to remain constantly "in touch."

We need not only an Internet provider, but also a backup Internet provider in case the server of the first goes down for a few hours. Not only must we have an e-mail account, but we must have several different e-mail accounts, accessible through various means, so that should there be a problem with one, there'll always be a way for the mail to get through. We need not only a sophisticated computer with which to "connect," but also a notebook computer to take with us when we're on the road, and beyond that a handheld "palmtop" for those times when the notebook is too cumbersome (we wouldn't want to be left adrift without instant access at the beach, for instance).

Along with the craving for connectivity comes the ever-increasing need for speed. We want more than the ability to communicate with folks halfway across the planet within minutes, which e-mail provides; we have to have live chat programs to allow us to "talk"; in real time. Our old, slow analog phone lines won't get us where we're going quickly enough, so we're bound to invest in high-speed digital access to feed our impatience.

We're like addicts -- we even undergo withdrawal symptoms when, for reasons beyond our control (power outage, camping trip out beyond the range of our cell phones) we become disconnected. Deprived of our "substance," we get irritable, short-tempered. We don't know what to do with ourselves. Some of us even feel a strange little drug-like "rush" at the sound of a modem making contact. Instead of mainlining it, we "online" it, sometimes trying to kick the habit and finding ourselves logging on against our own wishes.

Maybe all this connectivity has a down side, too. Especially, perhaps, for women.

Our electronic dependency, like any form of habituation, feels good at first. It's new and exciting, and makes us feel special. But after a while, it becomes a little less fun, a little more of a burden. We soon begin to feel obligated to return every call on the answering machine, to answer every piece of e-mail we get, to never leave home without the pager and cell phone. We feel compelled to apologize if we're ever unreachable, as if it were a serious breach of the social contract. Because we women have traditionally been the caretakers, we seem a bit more prone to this modern-day form of captivity in which, rather than using these wondrous electronic devices to benefit us, we become slaves to the technology, to the point where the devices are controlling us.

I've noticed on numerous occasions that many of the men I know are comfortable with letting the phone ring, letting the machine pick it up, if they're busy or just not in the mood to talk. Most women I've observed -- including myself -- either rush to answer, even while cursing the monster for ringing, or, if we've made a little progress, hold ourselves back and let the machine get it, but immediately rush to play the message, feeling guilty for "pretending not to be here." Similarly, in my experience, women in general are much quicker to return pages and respond to e-mail messages, and much more apologetic when they aren't prompt about it -- no matter how good their reasons for the delay.

Is this because most of us were raised to "respond"? To let men initiate contact, to sit and wait for the guy to call? Taught that it was our duty to be there and jump when we were told, to come when we were called?

Does it have something to do with inbred "mother instincts"? When a baby cries, we must respond immediately, or possibly put the helpless infant at risk. Is it just because we're better mannered, more considerate? Or is it because, women's lib or not, most of us are still wimps?

The "whys" are fascinating, but I'm not sure they really matter. If we, as women, want to get as much enjoyment out of all this new technology as men are getting, it's up to us to learn to approach it differently. If we feel overwhelmed, stressed out by all the demands being placed on us -- if we sometimes wish we could run and hide in a place where no one could find us -- maybe that's a clue that it's time to reassess our lifestyles. If we find ourselves longing to ditch all our responsibilities and obligations, it probably means that we have too many, or that we're not handling those we have in the best possible way.

I think it's time for us to take back our privacy. Few of us would *really* want to return to the inconvenience of the old days, when getting in touch with someone across town could be difficult and a conversation with someone across the ocean was a major undertaking. I certainly don't want to throw away my computer or cancel my voice mail service and I wouldn't expect other women to do so, either. But I have, over the last couple of years, started weaning myself away from my dependency. My husband and I ditched the cell phone first; few calls are so urgent that they can't wait until we get to a stopping place, and I have a real concern about the way driving skills seem to have deteriorated, and "road rage" increased, as the number of cellular phones on the streets has gone up. I got rid of the pager that held me hostage for years. I'm thinking of getting another, but giving the number to no one but my immediate family; any true emergency would probably involve or at least be known by them.

I don't automatically check my e-mail first thing in the morning and the minute I walk in the door anymore -- at least, not *every* day. We used to have to wait two days or more for mail to wind its way through the postal system, and we survived. Most messages will wait. We even went out of town recently, and, although we did take the laptop along, it was just too much trouble to set it up and plug in and connect remotely and check the mail more than once a day. The world didn't end because I was off-line.

I do still use e-mail a lot; it's pretty nonintrusive. You can filter it, you can read and reply to it at your leisure (or not at all), and it's fast when there really *is* a need for speed. I don't do chat anymore. It's the most time-consuming (and time-wasting) activity on the Net, as well as the most addictive. I still very clearly remember many nights sitting bleary-eyed at the computer, knowing I needed to sleep, or had work that needed to be done, but unable to pull myself away from the keyboard. But the few times I've tried it, in the four years since I gave it up, I didn't like it. It's like junk food -- once you get out of the habit, you realize it doesn't taste good anymore at all.


I'm even learning the art of not answering the telephone! Okay, I admit I have to cheat. I've found that if I don't hear the phone ring, I don't feel compelled to answer it. So I turned off the ringer, and I check Callnotes (the phone company service that takes messages when you don't answer or the line is busy) several times per day. If something is extremely important, there's another phone in the house, the number of which only a few select people know. But few phone calls are matters of life or death, and I've found that it's much less stressful when you have control over when you pick up your messages. In fact, sometimes I wish everyone did it this way -- there are times when I'm the one placing the call, when I need to convey information but really don't want to get involved in a long discussion, and would much prefer to be able to leave a short message on voice mail.

And I'm beginning to *like* the technology again, now that it's there for my use, when I want to use it, instead of lurking in the shadows, ready to leap out and harass me at any moment. My world had shrunk just a little too much, like the teenage girl who sets out to lose a few extra pounds and finds herself in the clutches of anorexia. But I'm expanding it, just a bit, getting it back to a size that's healthy and comfortable.

The ability to connect with the rest of the world is indeed a good thing. But staying connected constantly, losing ourselves in that connectedness, to the point where we feel as if a part of *us* is missing without it -- that's not so good.

A common science fiction scenario has the machines taking over the world. Sometimes, as we look around us at all the devices demanding our time and attention, that fear doesn't seem so far-fetched. But in the real world, the machines still do precisely what we program them to do. They can't rule our worlds -- unless we choose to let them.


Debra Littlejohn Shinder is a computer consultant and former police officer who teaches in the Eastfield College criminal justice and computer networking training programs, and in her spare time writes about law enforcement, computers, and a little of everything else. She lives in the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex with her husband, Dr. Thomas Shinder, and teenage son, Kristoffer.

E-mail Debra at
deb@shinder.net
Or visit her at <http://www.shinder.net>.


Other Opinions Articles...

| Cyberwomen: Redefining the Internet With a Feminine Perspective |
| The "Small World" Syndrome: The Underside of High Technology |
| Unmasking the Silence |


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