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June 15, 2006
My hope was to connect to the Internet via airport's invisible wireless network and send out an eMo while waiting for my delayed plane. This is something I have done before, always with great difficulty, but today the project seemed especially doomed: AOL repeatedly proclaimed its inability to connect to the Internet, something I wouldn't be bragging about if I were them.

I always rely on the kindness of strangers in these situations, and two of them kindly advised me about connecting with my cellphone company -- with my cellphone company? -- and getting a one-day pass onto the information superhighway. The company informed me that my username wasn't my name at all; it was my phone number. Who would have thought it? But they were right: it worked, I was connected, and before long, the eMo began to curl out of my fingers and onto the screen.

I like snail mail, a woman told me with some desperation. She had asked how she might read the eMos, and I had told her they were on the website. I saw her shoulders slump in despair; Oh, she said. It's on the website -- Oh, it's online -- Oh you go to such-and-such .com or -- easy for us to say, inpossible for many people to hear. If online stuff is hard for you, it's just is, no matter how many people for whom it is not difficult tell you it's easy. All that does is make you feel like an idiot.

If you have any ego strength at all, you quickly find a way to convince yourself that it's the online people who are the idiots. That they are the living dead, their wan faces suffused with the greenish light of their computer terminals, people who have lost the art of face-to-face human communication, people who think humor is when you type after some unfunny thing you've written.

When the truth is something else: it turns out everyone can be an idiot. Writing something out longhand is no guarantee that it's going to make any more sense than if you typed it up and printed it out, and the reverse is also true: you can be as dumb on a computer as you can in the flesh any day. Every professor knows this for a fact: student papers have never looked better, have never been as beautifully presented, in as many fonts, with as many perfectly assembled footnotes, as they are today. They are so lovely to look at that it is tempting not to see that there is not a single case of subject-verb agreement in your student's gorgeous paper on Pride and Prejudice, that she has consistently spelled the author's name "Austin" throughout and that the entire first two pages have a disconcertingly familiar ring: they have been lifted whole cloth from Cliff's Notes. Beauty is as beauty does, you say to yourself as your red pen hovers over page two and you steel yourself for the awkward interview you know is coming in the next day or two. You know that your student may be surprised to learn that lifting two pages of a five-page paper from a student cheat book is plagiarism, and that the school has a problem with it.

Will the machine change the human being? It already has -- our children are able to do certain things faster than we will ever do them, to grasp things immediately that take us minutes or even hours to reason out. Neuorologically, we are no longer the same animal. The things we do have always formed us, and the machine is part of the things we do. It is part of the company we keep, and -- to some degree, at least -- we will become it.

Q is volunteering at the Church's General Convention out in Columbus, where I am headed if my place ever gets here. His job is to manage one of the microphones in the House of Deputies. Oh, my, I said, excited. Do you get to cut people off after three minutes?

Nope, he said, the machine does it. Their microphone goes dead. They get a warning light and then they're gone.

I remember conventions in the past. There were those who waited eagerly all year for them: a chance to hold forth at great length, in front of a captive audience. Church meetings often used a bell to signal the end of people's moments in the sun -- they sometimes called this "the voice of Christ" but the real pros were quite able to ignore Christ's voice, ring after ring, leaving entire audiences longing for death to take them right then and there. It could be awkward.

Today is better, and we have a machine to thank for it: Fr. Foghorn can talk as long as the Spirit gives him utterance. We just can't hear him any more, after his three minutes.
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