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The Tangled Bank

Pulling the Plug

Nothing satisfies like the world beyond the screens

by Robert Michael Pyle

Published in the November/December 2007 issue of Orion magazine




In the spring of 1969, my Goodwill TV bit the dust. I never got around to replacing it. My household today contains a television set, but it plays only movies. There’s no cable or aerial reception here, and we have no dish. I’ve been without television for nearly forty years, and I’ve never been sorry. When my stepchildren, Tom and Dory, lived with us, they adapted to the absence of ESPN, cartoons, and Magnum, P.I., and we all read books together before the wood stove each evening. I felt we were living an improbable but lovely idyll.

An adulthood without TV has left me not only culturally spotty but also unselective, so that in a hotel room, if I accidentally turn the thing on, I am in danger of becoming a complete television slut. In the red-eyed morning after, I rue the loss of the sweet night’s sleep, the chapter read, the dreams unvisited by drivel and mayhem. Though I fondly remember sitting around our first big set in the ’50s, watching Zorro and Cosmo Topper, and my first huge crush on Gail Davis as Annie Oakley, I never regret releasing my home from television’s thrall. I’m not smug about it; I’ll shamelessly descend on televisioned friends for an election or beg a tape of an HBO concert, and I’ve become addicted to both Dallas and The West Wing when living in normally equipped homes for a season. It is recognition of this weakness that keeps me tuned out: I am just not disciplined enough to live with this device. Oh, I can exercise discipline when I really want to—less beer, more exercise, and the ritual of a daily walk, if only to the mailbox or the compost. But the immediate presence of the source of temptation always tests your resolution more keenly. So, like a bad boy who wouldn’t eat his sprouts, no TV for me.

Today there are so many more screens, so many electronic appurtenances, appliances—or say appendages, given the way the body politic has been jacked into them. This is not news: the suzerainty of the cell phone, the implant of the iPod, the bramble patch of the Blackberry, the prosthesis of the Palm Pilot, and now the whole enchilada rolled into the iPhone—it’s all old hat, as new as it is. In fact, the condition of human bondage to gizmos itself is an old condition. The most common postures today, cell phone elbowed to the ear or digital camera held at arm’s length as if intermediary to the actual world, may be recent evolutionary mutations, but that doesn’t mean there were no precedents. In Charles Frazier’s novel Thirteen Moons, protagonist Will Cooper laments the imposition of the telephone in his home—“So urgent, like a watchman sounding a fire alarm, but surely false in the shrill report of the tiny hammer beating frantically against the two acorn-shaped bells.” (If he could only hear the array of irritating ringtones today!) “What message short of disaster could be so pressing as to require that horrible jangle?” Will asks. “Use the post, and learn the virtues of patience and silence.” This, nearly a hundred years ago!

But some kind of evolution is taking place, and cannot be ignored even by the most resolutely backward among us. At a recent family wedding, my brother-in-law Leon challenged my concern over all the switched-on kids, swapping (as I saw it) the rites of fort-building and crawdad-catching for the rights of a high-speed wireless connection. “How do you know,” Leon asked me, “that these kids aren’t just as stimulated, and ultimately fulfilled, as we were by making up our own games outdoors?” I had to admit that he had a point. How indeed could I be sure? But by the third glass of champagne I had an answer—or at least a couple of questions: For one, what happens to a species that loses touch with its habitat? And where will all the conservationists come from when kids no longer have a patch of ground that they can truly call my space?

I’ve been thinking along these lines partly because e-mail has been driving me bats. The only time I can actually feel my normally underachieving blood pressure rise is before the e-screen, inbox at 98 percent full or so, more spilling in by the hour, chiefly importuning, and no chance of ever appeasing it all. And unlike a letter, there’s no grace period with e-mail: send one, and the answer comes back in a flash, demanding another right now. This creates masses of unnecessary work and entropy, which is what the e in e-mail really stands for, but worse is sitting butt-stapled to the swivel chair, eye-sutured to the flat screen, as the pernicious electroglyphs strike the terms of my existence. Years ago I took my home offline because writing, hearth, and health proved incompatible with having e-mail under my roof. Twice a week, I’ve been going online at the village computer center a few miles from home.

I know I am missing out on some wonderful exchanges and capabilities. But I already weep over all the indoor hours when I could actually be out, combing the moss for waterbears or contemplating the profound mystery of where people get the time to read blogs, for gods’ sakes—is it at the complete expense of books? If I had a mobile phone, I could be available for anyone to reach, anytime . . . except, as Greg Brown sings, “You can try me on the cell, but most places I want to be, it don’t work.”

I suspect that the mass capture of our synapses by electronica may threaten not only serenity but society itself. On a recent train trip, as I was writing with pencil on paper, with one eye out the window on yellow-headed blackbirds and paint foals, I saw something that appalled me: a youngish mother, supplicating babe in one arm, the other grafted to a cell phone on which she was playing a video game. The device went on and on, zinging, pinging, and ringing away, as the baby begged for its mother’s presence. She’d pause a stroke to shove a chip into the child’s mouth, or tell it to watch the passing lights, but she never looked it in the eyes. “You’ll drive everyone crazy if you keep on crying,” she scolded.

I told her that it was the noises from her machine that were driving us crazy. “Oh, this?” she said, and muted it, but kept on playing into the night. I wanted to add, “. . . and your rotten excuse for mothering.” Then the scene repeated itself with a different mother, a different baby, in the Sacramento station. These mobile moms brought to mind experiments with baby monkeys given sock dolls for surrogate mothers, and how the babies became sociopathic. This could be worse: sibling envy for a Nokia. Back in that lively spring of 1969 when the tube gave out, I certainly had no business sitting sessile before a screen. Now, having just entered what will be, at best, the last quarter or so of my life, I have even less. The last words left for his friends by a fine northeast Oregon naturalist, writer, and man, Frank Conley, felled way too soon by melanoma, drove this understanding home for me: “There will be a memorial service every day you take yourself, or someone else, out into the great outdoors—away from the monitors, videos, and TVs we see mirrored in our eyes—and learn something about birds, butterflies, or biscuitroot.” Amen, Frank.

So I’m going to do it—to pull the e-plug, although I’ll probably do a Web search now and then at the computer center or the library. Time will tell whether I can make a living without e-mail. In the meantime, I’m going back to the post, and the virtues of patience and silence. My loss, you’ll say. Maybe so. We’ll see . . . 

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This is Robert Michael Pyle's fiftieth consecutive exploration of the territory he calls, after Darwin, The Tangled Bank. In preparation for his renunciation of electrons, his patient editors are padding his deadlines and trying to find the nearest stagecoach stop.

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