The hills, the splendid forests turning red, the mighty rivers, the rolling clouds, the wooden houses with broad eaves, the squirrels: a road that vibrates with the majesty of nature. And suddenly you pass a road sign, black lettering on yellow background: "It can wait. Text stop in 5 miles." The scene is a place by the name of Shandelee, in upstate New York. Never before had I seen that particular phrase, that thing: a text stop.
Later I learned that these signs have been up for a few months. There are 300 of them all over the state. The campaign against texting means business, and features police who travel in vans so that in the higher seats they can look down into your car and catch you red-handed with a cellphone in your lap. Because the problem is a serious one.
With the message on the sign, the state exhorts you not to despair, that your message can wait five miles, a few minutes. But at the same time the state implicitly acknowledges that yes, you are going to despair. Your addiction cannot wait more than five miles, a few minutes. And it recognizes this brutal raid of virtual reality on real reality. Even on a road winding through these spectacular hills, the virtual world is going to want to tell us things, and we are going to want to answer them. The sign addresses our urgent need for communication, and, by answering it, accepts that this urgency is the way we live.
During millennia, communication at a distance was an effort. Now it is not communicating that is an effort
During millennia, communication at a distance was an effort: you had to write something, entrust it to a postman, messenger or pigeon, and wait for days or months to pass before the text covered the distance and arrived at its destination, by which time it was stale. Now, for a start, the idea of distance has very little meaning: for our form of communication it is the same to be three blocks away as 3,000 miles. For the next step, that of answering, virtual exchange systems such as Twitter and WhatsApp mean that the effort, if any, lies in not answering, not communicating. Effort is the act of turning the thing off, shutting it, not looking at it or waiting five miles to the next text stop. For millennia, to communicate was a decision: but now, not to communicate is what calls for a decision.
And this hyper-communication organizes, on our behalf, different ways of thinking about time. On this autumnal highway I receive messages that - I suppose - I ought to answer, from Barcelona, Medellín and Buenos Aires. Messages that, a few years ago, would have arrived by night at the earliest, when I had stopped at some hotel off the road; or, more likely, days later, back at home. We live, or many of us live, in several time frames at once. This is something really new.
And thanks to this simultaneity - because something that concerns us is always happening somewhere - we have this urgent despair, the feeling of always being left behind, missing things of importance. I used to enjoy being on planes; I spoke of plane time; the time of being on a plane - or mere time, time tout court - as one of the last bastions of disconnectedness. That voice that ordered you to turn off your cellphones inaugurated a stretch of time reserved to yourself, a time that was time and nothing else, where no other time could interfere. No more: I came here on an American plane where they offered me free WiFi, and of course, I couldn't resist.
The road - driving on a winding country road - might be another bastion, and so it is, at least in five-mile installments. There are few moments for being alone, alone with your own time, moments just for thinking. Perhaps that's it.