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What a Fool Believes...
by Todd Ziebarth : Editor, Terrain.org

An Atmosphere Worth Keeping

 
When I left home about a decade ago, my parents proudly owned a rotary dial phone.  I remember making some of the most important calls of my formative years on this telephone, and also recall the subsequent terror that built slowly as the dial clicked back into place after I entered each digit in the number of a potential date.  While they prized this possession, my parents scoffed at the thought of owning an answering machine or a personal computer. 

We were a low-tech family. 

Since that time, that phone has been relegated to the bin of our family's history, and a battery-operated, remote control touch-tone phone sits in its place.  My parents also bought an answering machine, then moved rather quickly to a voice mail service, and recently purchased some sort of system that identifies each incoming call.  Now, when the phone rings, they scramble to the caller identification system, and by the time they realize that they want to answer the phone, the call has been sent into the abyss of the voice mail service.

The atmosphere in which we lead our lives is obviously changing.  In fact, conventional wisdom holds that our worldly existence is becoming ever more fast-paced, incomprehensible and uncertain, mostly as a combination of profound changes in telecommunications and technology.  What remain unclear, though, are the consequences that will result from these changes. 

One of the more significant consequences may well center on how we connect to the world beyond ourselves. 

When fans of the Internet are trumpeting its benefits, we often hear of its ability to meaningfully connect people in far away places to each other.  While that sounds reasonable enough, I am often puzzled by many Internet users' inability to question the quality of these connections and their failure to discuss how the increasing presence of communication via the Net may alter human relations outside of the confines of the Net.

Specifically, I've found that much of the correspondence over the Internet is quite superficial.  That's not to say that such correspondence isn't beneficial in other ways and that it's impossible to develop and sustain meaningful relationships over the Internet.  Still, my guess is that such relationships, and the depth of the discourse that lays the groundwork for them, are the exception rather than the rule.

My perceptions are based on the constraints inherent within this marriage of telecommunications and technology.  For starters, these kinds of connections sorely lack the give-and-take nature of a good conversation, conducted either over the telephone or in person. Additionally, it is much easier to write and mail remarks to someone over the Internet than through a handwritten letter. 

Through an e-mail message, we don't have to worry about having to print the letter, address and stamp the envelope, and walk it down to the mailbox.  Furthermore, the accountability that exists in a telephone call or face-to-face meeting with another person is even more removed from many of these connections.  Simply stated, besides our own internal checks and balances, very few exist on the Internet itself.

Given the increasing presence of these superficial kinds of connections, it is more important than ever for our communities to promote physical interactions among their residents.  These interactions can continue to allow us to meaningfully relate to each other and realize the most basic elements of the human condition in friends and strangers.

Such interactions often occur for me, of all places, on the bus. 

This past summer, on a particularly stuffy and arid day in late August, I was on my way home from work on the 15 Local, heading east on Colfax Avenue.  It's important to note that the 15 L has a bit of a reputation in Denver.  The route's sites include many hourly-rate motels, liquor stores, and adult establishments.  Let's just say that I'm reminded after each trip along this route that it does indeed take all kinds.

This day the air on the bus was exceptionally pungent.  All seats were filled and every inch of available space on the floor was occupied.  As I struggled to breathe, and contemplated whether I really wanted to inhale anyway, the bus made its way to the stop at Downing Street.  Numerous people exited here, including the person to my right.  Several stumbled up the steps and to a seat, as well. 

The last person to enter the bus was a man, probably in his forties and probably oblivious to any sensations of pain.  He reminded me of a pinball, bouncing from person to person and pole to pole until he landed in the seat next to me.  We exchanged the obligatory greeting that often occurs among fellow riders.  Every piece of hair on my body curled as he breathed in my general direction.  I was almost certain that by the end of this ride my new companion was going to vomit on my lap. 

The bus plodded along Colfax, and at a stop or two down the road, a senior citizen pulled herself onto the bus.  As she made her way down the aisle, nobody budged or offered to give her a seat.  Folks seemed particularly tired at the end of a long and scorching workday, and either didn't notice or didn't care that we had stopped, let alone that an elderly woman was struggling to make her way down the aisle. 

When the bus lurched forward, she stumbled and began to fall.  In one amazingly swift motion, the man to my right jumped into the aisle and helped her to the seat he just vacated.  Not only was I shocked that the man was still conscious, but I was also surprisingly moved by his action.  It was a simple act by an unlikely person, and it jarred my level of awareness of others and reminded me, for a fleeting moment, of the wonderful workings of the human spirit. 

In this time of change, much of which I fail to comprehend, it was the kind of connection that I felt fortunate to witness and experience.  It was the atmosphere we all should strive to create.

  

Todd Ziebarth is a policy analyst at the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He is also a founding editor of Terrain.org. In addition to his regular Terrain.org column, Ziebarth sometimes reviews books and CDs for the journal. He has a master's degree in public administration and a master's degree in urban and regional planning.
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