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ON TECHNOPHOBIA




A while ago in Indonesia taxi drivers made the capital city of Jakarta a grid-locked mess and brought business and pretty much everything else to a halt when protesters flooded the streets to denounce ride-hailing apps like Uber, which they say threaten their livelihoods. Demonstrators set fire to cars and harassed those drivers who didn't take part in the strike.

Their actions remind me of that week during my junior year in high school when the faculty went on strike and their positions were temporarily filled by subs - that is, all but my English course, which was taught by Ms. Merritt who refused to take part in the protest, one would think because she needed the money. My classmates liked to call Ms. Merritt a scab, and became so relentless in their jeers that they once brought her to tears. Kids can be cruel. Such a descriptive pejorative conjures the image of a solidified patch of blood that persistently clings to the viable tissue. Scabs. We've all had 'em. These dry, purplish and rough slabs of tissue, unsightly though they be, are integral to the healing process. Scabs protect the underlying flesh as it regenerates; yet after a time scabs prevent the wound from fully healing by inhibiting circulation and exposure to oxygen, which can lead to scarring. Which explains our penchant for plucking them off. Hurts so good. To apply the term to non-strikers is quite a stretch, although the concept of clinging to "the way things were" does seem to fit. Which is what Luddites do.


I did not learn about Luddites in high school. In fact I had never heard of them until I became one myself, probably in the last decade or so, when I discovered our shall we say like-mindedness. The Luddites were 19th-century English textile workers who like our taxi drivers protested against newly developed labor-saving technologies emerging at the start of the industrial age. Like the self-employed weavers of England in 1815, today's taxis drivers are up in arms about losing their jobs. These Neo-Luddites are a 21st century rendition of a historical phenomenon which likely dates back to the day cavemen began hunting with stones and spears rather than with their bare hands. Shaping tools made our brains bigger, at the expense of our brawn. And now we are so many pasty, flabby wonks and techno-geeks. Nerds rule the world, all the more so if they are black and female. We love to root for the underdog and champion a cause. And it is rather fitting that the latest rendition should emerge in 2016, since it is the 200 years that the term Luddite was coined - it is believed after a man who took part in the protests. I have no interest in protesting or in smashing things, like Ned Ludd, or setting fires to cars, though this sounds fun or at least looks cool when it happens in movies that I do not watch. I don't like toying with technology so much as talking about technophobia.


I am not a technophobe, because I fear nothing. But I am shall we say wary. I have managed to avoid many trappings of the digital age, almost all of which center around the smartphone. If you don't have a smartphone, then you don't use apps like Bumble and Tinder and Snapchat and WhatsApp, and chances are you spend a lot less time than your connected peers do on social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Pinterest. Or no time at all, like me. When you check your phone zero times per day rather than 46 times per day, which is the American average, you really appreciate how many minutes there are in an hour. Without so many distractions vying for your attention, time is suddenly on your side. 




I'm not against technology per se. Like our Luddites, I just don't trust it. And they were onto something. The large-scale factory jobs that replaced skilled labor forced workers into inhumane conditions and overpopulated cities, which became breeding grounds for bacteria. It is no coincidence that shortly after factories started to spring up in European cities, the first cholera epidemics followed. In 1852 a two-year outbreak swept through England and Wales, claiming over 50,000 lives. Uber may not add cars to the road, since you leave yours at home, but it does make for a more congested city, since you are now travelling with someone who has no business being there except to chauffeur you around. And that someone probably makes stops of his own. Of course you cannot drive or call Uber without a smartphone, which brings us back to the point.


Does the smartphone make life simpler by streamlining things, or just add to the (in this case digital) clutter? I left the hospital precisely when iPhones were becoming ubiquitous. This was in 2009, around the time Apple and her imitators revolutionized the way we communicate. Now every doctor carries a handheld device, and often checks it both within and without the examination room, during lunch, in conferences and while walking down the clinic corridor, as I have had the misfortune of observing, basically by running into them. Today I accompanied my dad for his annual check-up and the internist treating him left the room three times to answer his phone. He said it was his wife, but I don't know whether to believe him or to think that's some code for this call is more important than you are right now. Technology can make things run more smoothly or appear to. The doctor ordered an ultrasound of my father's ankle and two minutes later my dad gets a call from the first floor radiology lab asking to schedule his appointment. They didn't even know he was in the building. He was able to go down then and there. The left hand may not know what the right hand is doing, but as in this case sometimes they come together in a clap and the effect is pleasing. But I wondered whether the doctor might have simply sent dad down to radiology straightaway and have done away with the middle man. What if my father didn't have his phone on him? What if God forbid he didn't own a cellular phone at all?


I don't think it's possible to practice medicine without being tethered to technology. The same goes for many professions. I'm often the only person in the room without a phone. But if I do need to make a call, asking a friend to borrow hers is a lot easier than walking downstairs and outside to the nearest payphone. Is this a good thing? I know, payphones no longer exist. But I sometimes like to see the look on a person's face when I ask him where the nearest one is. Stuck in the 90s much? At least I don't wear a pager. Which many doctors still do, in addition to their phones. Can't escape the 90s I guess. Which is a good thing, if you're a Neo-Luddite. In the pre-Internet days people were a lot thinner. The obesity prevalence in 1988 was 23%. Now it's 35%. I blame the payphone's extinction.


I am not a phone person, but even I miss the payphone, with its grimy earpiece and penchant for stealing change. One of the final excuses to head outdoors while at work has bitten the dust, out the same door as cigarette breaks when both made way for the remote control. Imagine how much exercise you'd get if rather than check your smartphone 3 times an hour you skipped down three flights of stairs and ran into the sun to see whether the payphone was ringing. You may miss the call, but one thing is for sure: you'd have one helluva tan. I know, I know. But where you cry sun damage I scream vitamin D. Sun is the best source. Enjoy some rays before tanning goes the way of the pager. Now that is scary.

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