The past year or so has brought into my life a number of huge steps forward, technologically speaking. My first three years in graduate school (which coincide fairly neatly with my first three years working for Strange Horizons), I lived by myself in an apartment with fairly few concessions to the modern age. I'd invested in a nice laptop computer, to make my research travel easier, but when I wanted to connect my shiny new computer to the internet, I used the free dialup service provided by my university. I had to compete with all of the other impoverished grad students for the fifty or so modem lines available in the pool, the result being that every time I wanted to check my email from home I had to plan for at least ten minutes of busy signals first. My big networking investment that year was a jack splitter and an extra phone cable, a small indulgence that kept me from having to physically unplug my telephone every time I tried to dial in.
It wasn't just the internet, though. I had a television, sort of, a hand-me-down left over from an old college boyfriend, but it could only get one channel on a good day, and that channel was likely to be staticky. The day I moved in to the apartment, the outgoing tenant had demonstrated for me the makeshift antenna system she'd rigged up for her television—it was made mainly of fishing line and tin foil and she insisted that it worked best if she left the blinds open on the leftmost window. Even with this antenna, she admitted, she could still only get two channels, and they were still fuzzy. I gave up on television for the three years that I lived in that apartment, making weekly trips to friends' houses to watch Buffy and letting the rest of it go. I kept the small television around, though, and watched a lot of movies, popping rental tapes into the creaky and unreliable VCR I'd acquired third-hand a couple of years earlier, pulling the television stand over next to the couch so that I could see the picture.
It all changed about a year ago, when Matt and I moved in to this new apartment. When I've tried to explain to people what the change felt like, the best I can come up with is this: did you see that episode of Babylon 5 where Bester wants the B5 crew to help him rescue his secret lover, the refugee telepath who's been taken by the Psi Corps for those secret cybernetic experiments? And they get her out of the weird cryogenic pod and leave her alone in the infirmary, and when they come back she's taken over the infirmary and she's suspended there in the middle of this enormous nest of cables and wires and digital displays and blinking lights and sparking circuits? That's kind of what it felt like. After three years of a living in the functional equivalent of a Vingean slow zone, I'd been pretty rapidly modernized. Things that we had in the new apartment that I had not had in the old: a decent sized television, cable (including all the cool channels, like SciFi and the Food Network), TiVo, a DVD player, a VCR that could be counted on to not eat tapes, broadband internet, wireless internet, a GameCube, a microwave oven, a cordless phone, a digital alarm clock, three-prong electrical outlets.
Having all of this technology to hand does change things, and I'm mostly in favor of the changes. (I'm still not a fan of the digital alarm clock or the cordless phone, but I feel pretty good about the rest of it.) The changes keep coming, too. Over the summer I received a portable MP3 player as a birthday present, which brought me even further into the modern age. I absolutely adore it, this small shiny little gadget that lets me listen to music even if I'm working in the library and gives me access to some of my favorite radio programs without having to stay near the radio on Saturday mornings. Adore it as I do, though, I've been noticing that it changes how I interact with the world around me, and I'm not sure I'm as positive about those changes.
Where I first noticed the change was in the airport. Sitting in the gate area, waiting for my flight, reading a book and listening to some music, I caught myself starting to sing along. Absent-mindedly and under my breath, but still, starting to sing along. I don't sing in front of other people, as a general rule, and even if I did, I like to think that I have better public manners than to sing in the gate area of a crowded airport. But it keeps happening, the semi-conscious humming or murmuring along with the music; even more disturbing is what happens when I listen to the radio programs or audiobooks. I'll be going merrily along my way, sitting on a bus or walking in to campus, listening to some audio program, and notice that I've laughed out loud at something. (Or, more distressingly, that I've been mumbling some kind of agreement with the speaker—there's nothing to make you feel more like a crazy person than to realize that you've just said "mm-hmm, you tell 'em" in response to a recorded voice no one around you can hear.) I hesitate to blame the technology, but the fact remains that I can (and often do) read books in public without ever once voicing a response, but the audiobooks make me talk to myself.
It may just be that audiobooks feel like a kind of conversation, that the feeling of someone talking to me and telling me a story holds my attention in a way that another media format wouldn't. In that sense it feels similar to the kind of intimacy one finds in radio programs; there's a sense of personal relationship you commonly find on radio call-in shows that you almost never find with print columnists or even television shows. I've had enough experiences with books completely holding my attention (so completely that I've been known to not hear people talking to me) to think that there's something else, though. Something about how the iPod (and similar devices) lets me live inside my own head even when I'm out in the world, something about it keeping me focused internally rather than externally. I'm certainly not saying it's a phenomenon that's new with portable MP3 players—I'm sure the Sony Walkman created similar reactions when it was new—but I think it might be part of something larger and more pervasive. There's a lot of complexity in the relationship between technology and culture, and even more complexity in the ways that technology is changing the ways individual people relate to the larger society around them. Having set the stage in this editorial for my nattering introspection with regards to that complexity, I plan to expand on it in next month's editorial. Until then I remain, yours truly, the crazy lady singing to herself in the airport.