I had a rendezvous with a friend last week on a Saturday afternoon. I used the Addis Abeba light rail system, as my friend and I resided on extreme ends of the station’s network.

We agreed to have coffee in her neighbourhood. We had not seen one another in a long time, although we were Facebook friends after the social media platform became available. When we got to talking, she complained a lot about the internet, as she believed it is among the main reasons driving us physically apart. There is also the other problem with social media – the endless elaborate lies, distortions, hoaxes, disinformation and loads of useless small talk.

I agreed with her in our chat, and then I dared to suggest that we continue our talk over Facebook. She went somewhat Luddite after that, and I later pondered what she might have thought about me afterwards. But there were events that led me to sympathise with her.

I headed back to the train station after our meet up. I grabbed my ticket, got on board and surveyed the passengers. A young man next to me was listening to a local FM radio coverage of the English Premier League on his phone. Almost all the other passengers were also buried in their gadgets, face first. I thought about how it was when I was growing up. We had to wait a month, which improved through time to two weeks, just to get a review of the matches.

It seems we have gone from nearly no information at our disposal to a glut of it, following us wherever we go. It was a problem few would have anticipated would happen, that these sci-fi level gadgets would take over our lives the way they have done. And yet, it is hard not to recognise that they are a net positive.

An incident that came to mind was with the same friend who had turned Luddite. Decades ago, we had an appointment to meet and discuss details on the telephone. In those days, housing units having a landline were not many, and she was one of the few who had the luck.

It was almost for a whole weekend that I tried her phone, and yet it kept saying it was busy. What happened was that a technical glitch in the phone lines had absurdly made their line busy. There apparently was no easy way to fix this and, worse still, there was no other conceivable way of reaching her in time short of visiting her at home.

Now that computers and phones, and in some cases watches, have become a huge worldwide series of interconnected networks, a new form of superhighway with our extended selves, communication is no longer an issue for a vast majority of us. This is the case at least in the sense that communication means being able to reach one another. These days, hours cannot be imagined without being online. Yet, it is the good, the bad and the ugly extended self of our offline life that we maintain on the internet.

There are applications that help keep us offline, such as ad blockers. There is even an app called Cloak, which tries to help people avoid those they do not want to meet. Its slogan is, “incognito mode for real life.”

Yet, the irony is that the network effect makes it hard even for the most technology-averse to keep out. The internet is where everybody else is and to disconnect these days means to shut off oneself from the world. Even to preach as a Luddite on the net, one needs to be able to surf it.

PUBLISHED ON Apr 22,2022 [ VOL 23 , NO 1147]

Tadesse Tsegaye (seetadnow@gmail.com), a polyglot with experience in multicultural-cum-institutional settings in resources management.

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