The joys of being powerless

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Early one evening last summer I came home to find the neighbour's little boy waiting for me in the driveway. Wriggling and hopping around, he was desperate to tell me that something awful had happened.

It took me a few seconds to penetrate his excitement and grasp the cause of his agitation. Disaster had struck. His computer wouldn't work. He couldn't play any games. It turned out there was a power failure in our neighbourhood.

Deprived of his 'external' source of energy, the boy was now giving full rein to his own, internal energy. He darted around outside like a bee from blossom to blossom. He saw things that he'd never had the time to see before.

One of my flower pots caught his eye. He dashed over to it and asked me if a snake ever came out of there. I was mystified, until I realized that his quicksilver mind had connected the wicker-weave pattern on the pot with a snake charmer's basket. He sprinted to my garden bed, pointed to my zucchini plant and wanted to know if all it grew were big leaves. His catalogue of discoveries and questions persisted until someone called him into the house. He didn't come back out. Power had been restored.

Yes, this is another lament about the regrettable consequences of high-tech gadgets. The effect they are having on our social habits, on our awareness of the world around us, is pernicious. Root of that word is the Latin "perniciosus," meaning destructive, disastrous, calamitous. Pernicious even sounds destructive, like a huge, pointed spike being slowly pounded into our souls.

In late December 2011, the New York Times ran a column by the travel writer Pico Iyer about the joys of silence. It contains some startling statements – Big Sur's Post Ranch Inn charges guests over $2,000 a night "partly for the privilege of NOT having a TV in their rooms." Discerning travelers of the future will seek out "black-hole resorts" – the kind that "charge high prices precisely because you CAN’T get online in their rooms." South Korea and China have Internet rescue camps, "to try to save kids addicted to the screen." Iyer writes that his friends "pay good money to get the Freedom software that enables them to disable (for up to eight hours) the very Internet connection that seemed so emancipating not long ago."

I grew up when most families had a TV, but computers were not yet for personal use. In the 1960s, when I was in high school and got together with friends, we didn't assemble around the TV screen, we talked or sang or played games – board games, card games and charades. Memories from those times come rippling with laughter.

When I was younger, living in Burkeville, we'd play hopscotch and double dutch on the street—car traffic in the neighbourhood was minimal. If we were in the mood to pit our skills, we'd sit on the sidewalk and play jacks or marbles. Indoors, handicrafts kept us busy. That was in the 1950s. We supplied our own 'power' – just as the children of ancient Egypt and Rome had done when they, too, played hopscotch, skipped rope and shot marbles, thousands of years earlier. What's the life span of a video game, I wonder?

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This page last updated: January 24, 2012.