In his personal memoir, A Tale of Love and Darkness, Amos Oz describes in beautiful detail the story of his family’s phone calls from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv in the 1940s.
The calls, which only took place every three or four months, were planned weeks ahead by sending letters to confirm the exact date and time. During the days leading up to each call, Amos and his parents prepared themselves, ensuring that they would be on time and sound healthy over the phone. On the day of the call, they would put on their best clothes and march down to the pharmacy, the only local phone, to perform the ritual. At the appointed time, Amos’ father would call the operator and ask to be connected to Tel Aviv 648 (imagine, a three digit phone number!) The operator would ask him to hold as the line was being used for another call.
The magnitude of the preparations was matched only by the excitement with which the young Oz beheld the event. In the hours leading up to the call, Oz would run back and forth from the clock in the kitchen to his father in the living room, counting down the minutes as if it were a NASA shuttle launch.
As I grew up, my family gathered for a similar ritual. Every Sunday morning, my parents, sister, aunt, uncle and cousins would assemble – one week at my house and the next at my aunt’s – to call my grandmother in South Africa. At the appointed time, my grandmother was wheeled to the telephone at her old age home and would sit waiting for our call, much as Oz’s family did. I remember the excitement of waking up early in anticipation of the call, the planning of what I would share, and the inevitable disappointment when the call was over and I suddenly realized that I had forgotten the most important detail.
Living in the age of cellphones and instant messaging, many young people may view my and Oz’s shared childhood experiences as mundane. With the steady development of communication technologies, are we losing the excitement of reaching across the ocean?
The summer after I completed Grade 11, I travelled to Poland, Ukraine and Israel with a group of American teens. When I returned from the trip, I yearned to reconnect with my new friends. I was quickly introduced to the world of Instant Messenger. Since that summer, I have spent hundreds of hours sitting in front of a computer typing to friends and relatives around the world.
Last Sunday, I met, online, the daughter of a close friend living in Boston. When the live video image of the five-year-old popped up on my screen, we chatted awhile, each of us seeing and hearing the other. A few minutes into the conversation, she wanted to tell me a joke but couldn’t remember the punch line. So she picked up the telephone and called her grandmother in New York. The three of us, from three different cities and three different generations, were connecting in a way that the young Oz could never have imagined.
With these new tools, however, we’ve lost an ability to communicate. Working with teenagers during the summer, I am amazed when they run to the computer labs during their free time to instant message with their friends sitting across the table. Instead of speaking in person or on the phone, they pour out their inner thoughts and emotions on a keyboard.
Communicating is a basic human desire. While technology has made communication more accessible than it was in Oz’s youth, we must be careful to ensure that it does not jeopardize the quality of these conversations – the ability to talk, share, empathize and attend. Some would say that our kids have lost the ability to communicate. In truth, they may just be out of practice.