Blackberry: Life as Distraction

Carrying the world in your pocket

Here's what I'm wondering: Is it possible to own a PDA (personal digital assistant) and still have an interior life?

There was a time when people used to ask that question about television sets. Before that, it was the radio. And before that, it was probably the phonograph, or moving pictures, or lantern slides. The case against frivolous distractions isn't new, nor is the argument that technology threatens the inner silence that fosters creativity.

What's new is distraction as a steady diet. Distraction on demand. Distraction so addictive and pervasive that nothing, not snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night nor safety of life and limb stands in its way.

Getting and spending we lay waste our powers, Wordsworth wrote in 1807. If he were writing today, he might add texting. And scrolling. And tweeting. And driving, while doing all of the above. Of course, if Wordsworth were alive today, he might not be writing at all. He might be too busy networking with Keats and Shelley on Facebook.

I'm having a brief Luddite moment, mired in nostalgia for the days when communication depended mostly on the postal service and long-distance telephone calls were reserved for birth announcements and death notices. Days when it was possible to have an unvoiced thought. Days when you might purchase a pair of shoes without sending a real-time photo of them to your BFF's cell.

I'm back to my recurring fantasy about life on a remote island off the coast of Maine, where mail arrives once a month by ferry and other news from the outside world is limited to emergency signals from the coast guard station and messages washed ashore in bottles.

I'm not a recluse by nature. I like people. I like news. I like them both in manageable increments, which for me means something less than always and everywhere.

I own a Blackberry. I even know how to use it, although surely not to its greatest advantage. I don't take pictures or locate obscure Ethiopian restaurants in distant cities or monitor the moment-to-moment activities of grade school friends who have suddenly resurfaced on my social network. The way I see it, there's a reason that I haven't been in touch with them since Eisenhower was president.

I'm nostalgic for a time when delayed gratification was built into human interaction. There is a whole generation out there that has never sat by a window and waited for the mailman to come up the street. There are young people walking in the world who have never waited for a letter that might bring good news or bad or just the next, much-anticipated installment in someone's story. There is a whole new generation that doesn't understand the concept of waiting, of biding time, of letting events unfold.

These key elements of the inner life are nurtured in stillness, a stillness we now surrender to pocket-sized mobile devices that make it possible to avoid reflection altogether. Why ponder when you could be posting?

PDAs are designed to streamline communication and maximize efficiency, and no doubt they do. But for me, carrying the world in my pocket is a dangerous opportunity. There are moments when I need to connect via a few quick keystrokes, when I need an answer now, when vital outcomes hang in the balance and delay would be disastrous. And there are moments when I need to turn the whole bleeping thing off. The headlines will change. The e-mails will multiply. The stock market will rise or fall. It will be what it is. The battery needs to recharge, and so do I. In wordless solitude. In blessed, Twitter-free silence.