January 1, 2007

Happy New Year! Here is a picture of Ottawa taken late last Thursday afternoon by Piet de Jong of Apeldoorn, who visited us with his wife Elaine—Elaine was flying the ‘plane as Piet worked the camera—friends we made in the Netherlands some twenty-seven years ago.

Ours has been a holiday full of things worth seeing, people’s faces particularly, especially this one (photo’ taken by my son-in-law) that we have also seen in motion, awake, frowning in bafflement at the new world, “live”, in real time. In other words, our family has learned to “skype” one another this Christmas.

So all of a sudden we are a visible, if two-dimensional, presence in each other’s territories. In the case of our immediate family, that means on three continents at once, George, for example, giving us a guided tour of the Parkes Radio Telescope control tower from which he’s been observing his pulsars. On Christmas Eve (Christmas Day already over there) we also had an intercontinental audio-conference on a conventional ‘phone line, with ten participants chipping in from various parts of the Commonwealth. It was noisy.

The isle is full of noises…

these days, what with the brrr, brrr of our old-fashioned plug-in phone, the ping of the e-mails arriving, the purposeful whoosh of the e-mails that are sent, the irritating ring-tones of our cellular phones, different for text messages on those same devices, and now the warble-warble of Skype calls coming in, not to mention the zip-zip of people coming on-line and of chat messages going to and fro.

Sometimes a thousand twangling instruments
Will hum about mine ears…

and I must keep my wits about me to know which noise is which and which part of the isle it’s coming from.

In the old days it was different. If we wanted to send any news we’d write a careful letter, seal it in an envelope and take it down to the nearest postbox a quarter of a mile away. If the news was particularly urgent or exciting, which was rare, we’d take an even longer walk to the phone-box (with its distinctive smell), crowd into its cramped space, getting our coins ready for the slot, dial 0, and ask the operator for “Guildford double-four, double-two” so as to speak to my aunt and uncle, passing the receiver around as best we could.

The nice thing that distinguishes the Skype mode of communication from the others is what telecom jargon calls “presence”. Without having to waste time getting no response, we’re able to find out there and then, by virtue of the tick in the small green cloud displayed beside their names, that the persons we want to contact are in a position to receive our calls. Or not, as the case may be, which it is also useful to know. They might be labelled “away”, “off-line”, or “not available” or not to be disturbed. What I find alarming, however, is my husband’s prediction that before very long we may all be wearing tags to show exactly where we are when we are not to be disturbed. “Micro-location tags,” he calls them.

I quite like the notion of my omnipresence in other people’s worlds, but I’m not so sure I like the thought of other people always knowing where to find me.


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