he Dalits are the lowest of all Indian castes, indentured servants known as untouchables. I belong to my own caste — the unreachables.
This isn’t the best of positions in a society whose neo-Cartesian dimension puts chatting and being on equal footing. Call him; send this; text that; be my friend. Show-and-tell is being’s badge of honor. Transmission is life-affirming. Ignore such fashionable reciprocity and you live under cover, literally excommunicated.
Take my mobile phone, a big lug of a Nokia foisted on me in the mid-1990s by a newspaper in Prague. They wanted me to stay in touch; I didn’t. Hauling it to dinner in Rome a decade later (no doubt against its will) provokes gawking. The antique is my nod to the exotic. (“Awesome,” say retroists).
My Italian friend Arturo has four mobile phones, each colored brightly. He uses a different one daily, or nearly, with a special line for weekends. Italians dislike being alone or out of touch. The mobile phone recreates village life, manna to the urban piazza. Pictures and videos give small talk a magic carpet for cries and whispers.
Arturo no longer calls me when he knows I’m not home. He’s seen my mobile phone. He feels for me. I tell him I still use my landline. He stares at me bewildered.
My American friend Marcia has a BlackBerry and a mobile. “Need to stay in touch with my kids,” she says. When she visits my home her machines sit on my coffee table. One glows like enchanted Christmas candy. The other hums and quivers.
Marcia receives tiny headline prompts while she walks. “Dow’s down 500,” she says. At the zoo, by the lion cage, she tells me Michelle is wearing a blue dress. At first I’m lost.
These snippets are more than quaint sound bites. They portray a personalized puzzle world the recipient is expected to regard as intimate. But it’s not.
I recently received a one-word email from a friend informing me of John Updike’s death. “Bummer,” it read.
For Updike certainly — death’s a bitch and then what? Unless death frees you from malignant pain. How to answer such a message? You don’t.
Being an “unreachable” in a culture in which accessibility is the most identifiable conformity makes you an eccentric. It can even generate hostility.
Do you think you’re better? I’ve been asked. No, I don’t.
Are you into retro? No. Not into. Am.
What makes you think not being in touch all the time makes the world a better place? Nothing. I do, however, enjoy the downtime that unreachableness (no headlines or hums) ensures.
In the 1990s, my mentor, the editor of a leading newspaper, wanted CNN in his hotel room and an assurance that the building had a backup generator in the event of a power failure. Editor and news junky. We laughed.
But deprive the reachable of their intimate tools and the results can be unpleasant; watch what happens when people are stripped of computers, phones and iPods. Not for a minute but a day. Cut the umbilical chord that nourishes personal distraction (kids, family) and interpersonal conversation (work, lovers, news) and focus suffers fast, often replaced by pathological worry. Sociologists pre-calculated the illness half-a-century ago. “The terror of loneliness,” they called it, or listening for “the noise of others to deaden the noise of self.”
But 1950s noise was considerably less invasive. Tuning in, or sending out, had limitations. The reachable were forced, grudgingly, into a state of occasional unreachableness. They read, walked, wrote letters, conducted affairs, thought about the consequences. What they couldn’t do was keep in touch. No means (minus the telegram) existed. Bummer.
The unreachable have no special nobility. Like the untouchables, they exist beneath others castes, though in this case they’re there by choice.
You miss out, say friends. True. You’re pointlessly stubborn, say others. They’re right, up to a point. You’re out of touch with the times, say the more severe.
This last jolt perplexes even my unreachable side.
Who knows if remoteness from the hubbub isn’t the only way to see into its maddening core. Tell this to the all-reachable and they scoff. They listen, or try to, until signals emerge from pocket or ear. Eyes light up, an index finger raised to apologetic lips — hush! — and they resume a conversation until the next status-defining interruption.
Emission has the messenger in its thrall, the Narcissus of chat saying little but convinced of all.