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Bells and whistles that annoy and save


Reporters stand five deep in line in the hallway, waiting to use the conference’s free Internet access to check their e-mail. I contemplate my usual e-mail -- soppy inspirational messages, long stupid jokes, graphics I can’t open, online shopping promotions and the odd (I do mean odd) news tip. I keep walking.

In the grand ballroom waits an air-conditioned, fluorescent-lit picnic lunch -- an attempt to relax us before the panel discussion, when we will hear how the Internet is making newsprint obsolete. Shy at picnics, I spot a nice older man from India and plop down next to him, hoping to talk about yoga. Turns out he’s a panelist, founder of a news.com Web site.

Awkwardly slathering mustard on my veggie burger, I stare down at the red-checkered tablecloth, hoping for inspiration. Glancing up sidelong, I see him pull out a keyboard the size of a small mouse. A real mouse. Delighted to demonstrate, he shows me how he can pick up and send his e-mail anywhere, via this tiny keyboard. To prove it, he asks my e-mail address, which unfortunately takes three tries to spell clearly, and after considerable fumbling with the tiny keys, he gleefully sends me an e-mail, something on the order of, “Hello, I met you at the picnic and enjoyed our talk.” I will get it next week when I return to work, he promises.

I try to look eager. A woman joins us, nearly setting her cell phone in a puddle of spilled mustard, so desperate is she to keep it close. Those people are probably still out in the hall, I realize, missing the picnic while they wait for their lightning-fast electronic communications. What does it mean to feel so important that you have to check your e-mail every few hours from another state, be reachable anywhere at any hour, get beeped and buzzed in the middle of other people’s presentations?

Gathering my nerve, I ask my new friend, and he surprises me by predicting an anti-tech backlash any day now, from “people not wanting to be tethered.”

Ah, but we do want to be tethered. People love answering their phone in public, blushing and apologizing for popularity made manifest. Maybe it’s because we don’t feel known anymore, the way everybody’s known in a small sleepy town, down to their baby-day nicknames and adolescent quirks. The globe’s too big for such close attention; there are too many of us, too much happening too fast. Trying to ignore the pace is like trying to jump rope slowly when the turners are speeding up.

Besides, why bother forging deep abiding connections when you can have the instant adrenaline of being paged, e-mailed, phoned in the middle of a meeting? You can ride that urgency, that sense of being needed. And you’ll never have to be alone with your thoughts, silent enough to hear your deepest needs -- or God’s.

“It’s that relevancy and that need,” a voice reminds me. I look up, startled. My friend is now sitting at a long table on stage, and the voice is coming from the man next to him, an expert on cybermarketing who’s now asking newspaper publishers in the audience the big question: “Are you selling links?”

Virtual links, he means, on the global Web. It is vast, yet its exploded cosmology remains oddly personal, even provincial, like fraternities at a big state university. “All we care about,” he explains, “is our little niche in the marketplace.”

A niche is a cozy-sounding place -- but are “users” really getting the personal attention they crave? When we hear, “Yahweh called me before I was born; in my mother’s womb, he pronounced my name,” it means something quite different from the Web site that flashes obligingly, “Hello, Jeannette Batz, welcome back.”

Technology, I tell myself dramatically, has made it harder to grasp the deep significance of a personal savior. Harder to be truly alone. Harder to hear the voice of God.

Five nights later, I’m in a bed and breakfast on the edge of Iowa, hearing the voice, not of God, but of my mother’s doctor. It is 11 p.m., and he is calling from his cell phone to say she’s in the ICU on a ventilator, they’re not quite sure what’s wrong but I’d better come home.

By 1 a.m., I’m sitting numbly at my mother’s bedside, staring at a tangle of gray electric cords and blue plastic tubes and clear tubes piping water droplets, watery blood, dark gold urine, thick creamy liquid food. I sit helpless, listening to the exasperated sighs of the oxygen machine as it breathes for her. This is technology as high as you can get it, everything rigged, monitored, calibrated to the drop. Watching the numbers rise and fall as the machines attend to the invisible fluctuations in my mother’s stressed body, I am overwhelmingly grateful.

She was thrown into respiratory collapse by what they will eventually diagnose as Legionnaire’s Disease, and she will spend nearly a month on the ventilator, sedated into what the nurses call “twilight sleep.” She is flushed with fever, but the room is chilly, anonymous as cyberspace, a dim-lit blue-gray womb of metal and plastic and gray-washed sheets. The nurses and techs don’t know my mother; don’t know that she’s playful and tender and adores babies and animals and tennis and Snickers bars and hates to hurt anybody’s feelings.

They don’t even know her first name.

In the end, it doesn’t matter: They call her Baby, Darling, Sweetheart -- and it’s not patronizing in the least. They, and their machines, are taking intimate liberties with my mother’s body, caring for her in ways only a mother ever did. Below the shrill alarms, the litany of soft words assures her, “You are safe, we will handle you as gently as we would our own.”

They don’t, always, but the endearments take the affront out of their rapid jostlings.

She is being called by a loving name.

Technology does distort our sense of identity, time, space and priority. Technology also saves our loved ones’ lives. And when it comes to intimate human relationship, technology doesn’t change a thing.

Jeannette Batz is a staff writer for The Riverfront Times, an alternative newspaper in St. Louis. Her e-mail address is jeannette.batz@rftstl.com

National Catholic Reporter, October 13, 2000