Technology

#1337 The Vaunted Scene

#1337 The Vaunted Scene

“Behold me at length on the vaunted scene of Europe! […] I find the general fate of humanity here, most deplorable. The truth of Voltaire's observation, offers itself perpetually, that every man here must be either the hammer or the anvil.”

— Thomas Jefferson, 1785

We speak with President Jefferson about his time spent in France.

#1325 Pax Americana

#1325 Pax Americana

We answer listener questions this week, and the most mail we received was about Robert Kagan's new book, The Jungle Grows Back, which Tom Friedman of The New York Times called "An incisive, elegantly written, new book about America’s unique role in the world."

#1323 The Only Security of All Is in a Free Press

#1323 The Only Security of All Is in a Free Press

"were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers, or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter."

— Thomas Jefferson, 1787

This week we discuss the importance of a free press with President Jefferson.

#1279 The Art of the Letter

#1279 The Art of the Letter

"Every letter has a basis and a purpose … I spent an enormous amount of time thinking about the recipient."

— Thomas Jefferson, as portrayed by Clay S. Jenkinson

We speak this week with President Jefferson about the art of letter writing. Prompted by a letter from a listener, Jefferson shares his insights on the process. The exact number of letters Jefferson wrote is not known, but it is safe to say he wrote in excess of 20,000.

#1255 Show Mister Jefferson

#1255 Show Mister Jefferson

Prompted by a listener letter, Clay answers the question, “If Thomas Jefferson appeared before you today, what would you want to show him from our time?”

#1226 American Happiness

#1226 American Happiness

A variety of subjects are covered on the Thomas Jefferson Hour this week, including a discussion about Benjamin Franklin Bache's newspaper the Philadelphia Aurora, the effect negative press had on politicians during Jefferson’s time and an interview with Niya Bates about restoration work ongoing at Monticello.

The Joys and Sorrows of the Electronic Globe

ROME

I am spending Thanksgiving in Rome. I give thanks to the global internet for making it possible to write these words 5,185 miles away from the turkey my mother and daughter are cooking in Dickinson. The students I am teaching for the University of Mary are down the hall Skyping their families back home. We live in an age of technological miracles. How is it that humans can zip around the planet this way and communicate more or less effortlessly over vast distances? If our civility and peacefulness and generosity of spirit were equal to our technological wizardry, the world would now be approaching utopia. But while we give thanks for the abundance of our lives, radical Islamists are cutting the heads off people including American journalists, they regard as infidels. And we, admittedly, are killing Islamists we regard as evil doers with drone strikes and cruise missiles. As humans overcome space, the paradoxes of human nature become more biting. We can send video of stupid pet tricks to the far corners of the planet effortlessly, and free, but we cannot get water to dying people in sub-Saharan Africa.

Just as I wrote that last sentence, my computer "rang," and Skype announced that my daughter was video calling. And suddenly there she was, sitting at the kitchen table of the house I grew up in in Dickinson, not quite clear as a bell, but a hundred times more clear than when Neil Armstrong bounced down onto the surface of the moon. I could see her expressions as if I were sitting across that table from her. I could see, for example, that she got a good night of sleep in her first night in North Dakota. Good news for a busy college student at the end of a hard semester, and for her doting father who worries that she studies too hard.

We talked for 45 minutes, for free. For free! How is this even possible? If you had said to me when I was a junior in college (1975) that the day would come when you could talk free for most of an hour between Rome and North Dakota, I would have said, "Never gonna happen." If you had said that there would be video, too, free, I would have said, "You've been reading too much science fiction." But there she was, laughing, telling stories, talking about the chaos in Ferguson, Missouri, asking me about my flight to Rome, etc. Behind her I could see my mother bustling about the kitchen making her famous pumpkin chiffon pie for tomorrow (I wrote this on Thanksgiving eve). Mother is the epitome of domestic efficiency, and—if the truth be told—she is a kind of kitchen Nazi who does not welcome help when she is hard at cooking, baking, or clearing up. She was cracking eggs while my daughter was cracking jokes, and from time to time Mother would chime in from four or ten feet away with a wise crack of her own, or "refute" something my daughter was saying. They have the most amazing love for each other that I have ever seen between grandmother and granddaughter, but they are neither of them very sentimental in that love. They tease and jostle each other in a kind of running dialogue. When Mother said something particularly opinionated, I could actually see my daughter raise her eyebrows for her father's benefit. Fortunately, there is no recording of the video conference.

I was telling my daughter about a field trip I have planned for my students on Monday—to Ostia Antica, the ancient port of Rome where the River Tiber meets the Mediterranean. I told her one of the things I want these students to see is the place where St. Augustine's beloved mother Monica died. There is a famous passage about it in Augustine's Confessions. My daughter is a classics major—Latin and Greek—and so before I had really begun my description she was telling me where Monica was finally buried in Rome, and that in that church we could also find a painting by Caravaggio. So my 20-year-old daughter in the middle of the plains of western North Dakota was teaching her father, the teacher, half way around the world. 

So now as I write these words in the aftermath of that sweet conversation I feel bittersweet. On the one hand, I am so thankful that I was able to connect tonight (their today) with the two women who mean most to me. To see my mother separating egg yolks from egg whites, and waving her wooden spoon mock-menacingly at my daughter when she disputed some anecdote, while my child rolled her eyes and laughed with pure joy, was a great delight and comfort. It was almost as if I were in that kitchen. I could see the stairs up to the second floor. I could see the big kitchen window and the snow-strewn yard beyond, and that wonderful glaring white light of North Dakota on a cold crisp November day. I was with them in some genuine way, and it was infinitely more familiar and intimate than a long distance telephone call. And yet…

As I write the last of these words, I am overcome with sadness. Being away from them during my favorite holiday of the year (theirs too) was going to be hard, and I had worked up some pretty strong stoicism to get through this. In some sense it would have been easier to remain resolutely in this zip code than to peer in virtually on theirs. I wanted to hug my child. You know that hug that redeems everything in life. Even a four second hug can serve as a full top-off on love. There she was, tantalizingly close, full of youth and life and joy and love, eating the occasional barbecue potato chip, as if we were not engaged in spectacular form of techo-badminton. But she was also untouchable. It felt like one of those ghost stories in which something or someone is completely "real" until you reach out to hold them, but then your hand goes right on through the illusion. There is a story in Virgil's Latin epic the Aeneid (Book Two, I think) that works like this. If we were still Skyping, my daughter would now inform IM me the passage, with a slightly (and carefully) raised eyebrow that her father could have forgotten precisely where to locate the passage. So now I have decided to have my U Mary students read one of the twelve books of the Aeneid next week.

So here I am, sitting in an office on the Rome campus of the University of Mary. One by one the students have shuffled off to bed. The campus is quiet (it is only quiet when they sleep!). It is now technically Thanksgiving here in Italy, where Thanksgiving is not celebrated. But I'm not really here now, though the fingers that type these words are tired. I am across the world at that kitchen table in Dickinson, listening to the love contest between the two women who flank my heart, and contributing the occasional sentence. I can smell that pie.
And I am immensely thankful, in a way that I would not be if I were there, but with a wash of sadness like the vanilla mother is swirling through those beaten eggs.


Travel-Worn Reveries as Thanksgiving Looms

Last week, I was flying from Washington, D.C., to Seattle, in two gulps, and having a very bad travel day. All the things that go wrong were going wrong, and when I finally got to my hotel with my damaged new luggage, wanting a hot shower more than anything in the world, the check-in agent turned out to be a very officious and unpleasant person who instantly discerned that I had not suffered enough for one calendar day. By the time she finally handed me my keys, thirty minutes later, I wanted to have a giant meltdown in the lobby of the hotel. I had a fantasy of just sitting down on the polished marble in the middle of the lobby and emptying my two broken suitcases of every item, piece by strewn piece, and then decanting a whole can of shaving cream over my body, while chanting the first verse of Coleridge's "Kubla Khan."

I went quietly to my room.

Two hours later, after a meal (mediocre) and a glass of wine (excellent), I tried to step back and put things in perspective. Thanksgiving is coming, after all. Before I write to you again, we will have celebrated our national day of gratitude. It is, in my opinion, easily the best holiday of the year and often the best day of the year. So as I sipped my wine, I decided to take a play from the Sheila Schafer happiness playbook, and make a list of things for which we all can be thankful. My friend Sheila claps three times in front of the mirror every morning, to express her gratitude for the miracle of life, and for all the gifts that she has been given by the grace of God. She is the happiest person I know.
 
Well, first of all, we are the most mobile people who ever lived on earth. I started the day in Washington, D.C., and ended it in Seattle, at the other end of the continent. That's 2,716 miles. Total transit time 6 hours, 44 minutes. All the heavy lifting was done by the industrial revolution. I merely sat in two snug 38,000 foot reading rooms, sipped beverages brought to me by friendly uniformed attendants, and lost myself in my book. After a lifetime of flying around, I still regard it as a kind of miracle that you can wake up at one end of America and go to sleep at the other. Just think back. On a good day, if everything went precisely according to plan, if there were no accidents or screw ups, Lewis and Clark might make 15 miles. And that's with everyone pushing and tugging and rowing with all of their might, dawn to dusk. I was miffed when they ran out of peanuts on my second flight.
 
And speaking of books. We are living in a golden age of books. Thanks to Amazon.com and its rivals, I can hear about a book at a dinner party somewhere, order it with a single keystroke (no typing in all that tedious billing and shipping information, and the credit card number, plus the security code), and often enough it is waiting for me in my mailbox when I get home three days later. And that's the slow way to get books in the 21st century. If you don't mind reading a book on a screen, you can as often as not get it instantly. I've actually downloaded books, in seconds, at 35,000 feet, while soaring at 500 mph over the deserts of the American West. How is this even possible? What would Johannes Gutenberg (ca. 1398-1468) say about that? What would Thomas Jefferson think? With these breathtaking technologies, plus our superb currency-credit systems, and the wholesale digitization of the backlog of books from prior centuries, it is now possible to read just about anything you might ever want to read, immediately, on demand! I'm going to Europe in a few days, and my backpack will carry approximately 15 books (alas for my back), but I have pre-loaded 30 more books, some of them giants, on my iPad. In the face of that, how much annoyance can a power-drunk hotel desk clerk cause?
 
And speaking of backs. Thanks to pharmaceutical chemistry, nuclear radiation, lasers, and synthetic materials, we now live much longer than we used to, at a higher rate of well-being and productivity, with infinitely less pain. The life expectancy of First World people essentially doubled in the Twentieth Century. Today's men and women easily survive their first grave health scare (early 60s) and frequently enough survive the second and third crises, too. The quality of dental care we enjoy in America is enough to make anyone thankful to live now, rather than in the Age of Queen Elizabeth I, or for that matter in the Age of Jefferson, when you could expect to gum your gruel sans teeth for the last decades of your life. The "lying-in" period for women in childbirth in Jefferson's era was two weeks to two months. Today most women who give birth are kept in hospitals overnight merely as a precaution, and to provide some on-site neonatal assurances. Think of reconstructive surgery for those born with cleft palates or harelips, for those who survive grievous car accidents, or women who undergo mastectomies. Think of in utero surgeries that correct miniscule malformed heart valves or underdeveloped stomachs or lungs. We are living in the age of miracle and wonder.
 
Think about communication for a moment. When I was in college I called home once a month or so, collect, and I could hear my father at the other end of America, somewhere away from the phone, grumbling, "Tell him to write a letter," or "Can't this wait until Thanksgiving?" If we called my Grandma Rhoda long distance, she immediately asked who was sick—or dead, because it was not permissible to spend money on long distance calls if there were no big announcement or emergency. Today long distance is too cheap to meter. Some Saturdays I Skype or Face time with my daughter for a full hour, on high resolution video, free, wherever she happens to be and wherever I find myself. When she is busy I can follow her rhythms on Facebook. When she is very busy she sends me a puny little text, "Hey, papa," or "'Sup," that gives me the assurance I need that she is alive and well. In the Age of Jefferson, letters invariably began by hoping that the recipient was still alive. Communication was slow, uncertain, a kind of shot in the dark. If Lewis and Clark had had cell phones and GPS units, things would have been so much easier.
 
I've just ordered another glass of Pinot Noir. Remember back when in North Dakota your choices were red wine or white, and Inglenook was regarded as a quality wine for special occasions? When I go up to my room I'm going to watch Federico Fellini's great epic film of Rome, La Dolce Vita (1960), downloaded instantly for $3.95. But it could be any of a hundred thousand movies or television series.  
               
For all of that, now that I've cheered up, the things for which I am most thankful have nothing to do with technology, or money, or stuff. They are two women, one biologically old but young of soul, the other biologically young but smart and wise beyond her years, or her father's.
 
Happy Thanksgiving.


The Etiquette of Texting in the Age of Electronic Loneliness

Yesterday I was being driven in a taxi from one part of Seattle to another. The taxi driver was a Muslim man who spent the entire twenty-six minutes talking in frenetic Arabic to someone on his cell phone. I don't know if they were making dinner plans or plotting revenge. All I know is that they were talking with great animation, and I didn't understand a single word my driver said. He was driving so fast that I was a little uneasy. Nor did it make my ride very pleasant to have to listen to what seemed like high-energy chatter, but I'm sure being able to multi-task in this way makes his work life less tedious and perhaps more productive. We drove through the fashionable Capitol Hill district of Seattle. On our right we passed a young man on a bicycle riding no hands and texting as he glided through traffic. That was the most creative (and dangerous) instance of texting I have seen so far. I suppose the ultimate would be to text while riding a bull in a rodeo. People must really want to text to take such risks.

What did we do before we could text Homo sapiens have been around for 250,000 years, and somehow we got by without texting until ten years ago. Now, approximately six billion texts are sent per day in the United States alone. Young Americans (18-29) send or receive on average 88 texts per day. The other night I sat at a long bar in a Seattle hotel and all eleven people sitting there were texting alone, concentrating even more on their cell phones than on their drinks. Not a single conversation of any sort was occurring between those eleven bodies. The bartender was texting, too. I was not texting, but I was reading a book on my iPad.

The Internet gave us the capacity to send emails at some point between 1995 and the millennium. The electronic letter phased out the paper-and-postage-stamp letter with breathtaking ruthlessness. I still send traditional letters to my daughter, and occasionally to others. She regards such letters as quaint relics of a forgotten age. She senses that a letter in the mailbox is somehow more significant than an email, but I can tell that she thinks it is a bit silly to deploy the resources of the US Postal System for six or seven days to deliver to her essentially the same words that I could have sent her instantaneously from anywhere on earth. The postal service is a reasonably efficient document delivery system now being displaced by a stunningly more efficient delivery system. I imagine when she receives a letter from me, it feels to her like that birthday card you used to get from your grandmother with a $5 check in it. You shake your head a little, even though you do appreciate the gesture.

I spend a lot of time in airports. Computers, cell phones, and texting have taken a lot of the tedium out of waiting for the next flight. It certainly beats that earlier phase of electronic culture when people carried little game devices around and played them in seat 23b with all their bells and dings and whistles blaring, as if they had a full grown pinball machine in front of them. What bothers me most now are the people who stop dead in their tracks in airport walking lanes, without warning, and when you lurch and scramble to avoid running them down, you discover they merely stopped to tap out a text. Hey Brad, 'sup This happens to me every time I fly now.

Texting is so addictive that once you are in there is no turning back. My mother is a great case in point. Sometime around 1998 I forced her to buy her first home computer. She resisted that rite of passage as if I were trying to put her in a rural nursing home. I'm too old, what would I do with it, I'd never be able to figure it out, I've lived my whole life without a computer, why would I need one now But of course the minute she had her first massive Gateway computer she recognized it as an essential tool of life. We went through the same nonsense about her first cell phone, her first laptop, and her first Nook. She relented in the end in the Battle of the Cell Phone by admitting that it might possibly save her life if she ran off the road in a blizzard. And for several years she used it only when she traveled. More recently we had a daylong argument about getting her a cell phone on which she could write texts. My fingers would be too clumsy on such a small keyboard, why cannot I just pick up the phone and call if I have something to say, I'm eighty years old for the gosh sakes, etc. This summer my amazingly persuasive daughter convinced my mother to buy her first iPhone, even though she had sworn earlier in the week that nothing could ever convince her to abandon a true keyboard for a touch pad. Now she nonchalantly exchanges texts with her granddaughter and with her significant other in Minneapolis, and a few days ago she somehow managed to send me a photograph from Cody, Wyoming. She has a fancy stylus for her phone. I'll look over at her and ask what she's doing Oh, just texting Russ (the S.O.) to see if he thinks Tiger or Phil will win the tournament. Oh my. As Hamlet put it, Is man no more than this?

One of the positive benefits of texting is that it makes us get to the point. It's the modern telegraph system. Nobody likes to tap out a 500-word note. I think it also invites us to be witty. A perfect text is worth a thousand words. It is certainly easier to text in one's regrets for not coming to a dinner party than making that call, which might end in the host persuading you to come, after all, or might leave you feeling like a lout. You can text what you dare not or would rather not say, and you can text at any time of day or night without necessarily disturbing the recipient.

Texting allows us to reach out to someone in a small way, without the duration and heavier implications of a phone conversation. Hey, thinking about you. Just wanted to make sure you are ok Don't forget to make the car payment. Have I said I love you yet today Texting is ideal for some types of communication. Think of how long that car payment phone call might have lasted and what Pandora's boxes it might have opened. The telegraph works better.

I have even heard of instances of people breaking up with their lovers by text—the rare Dear John text. Hard to believe anyone could ever be so barbarous and insensitive, but such things are a fair indicator of where we are and where we are headed as a culture.

C U next wk.