Small-town sensibility in a cyber universe

The Internet is rearranging our lives - even changing our priorities - as quickly as we can log on to our computers. We're communicating more often without pen and paper, and spending less time on the telephone. Thanks to the World Wide Web, we're purchasing more products from online catalogs, then eagerly awaiting the arrival of the UPS truck.

If postage rates rise next year, possibly as high as 15 percent for magazines, fewer publishers will be able to afford the cost of mailing. So it's likely you'll be hopping on the Internet to catch up on your favorite periodicals, too, if you're not there already.

"Circulation for our print edition is dropping, but our Web site traffic increases daily," confided a national magazine editor who gives me regular assignments. "Pardon the clich, but if we don't read the writing on the Web, we'll be left behind."

As a freelance print journalist who still prefers the sheen of glossy stock and the heady scent of newsprint, I have mixed feelings about this.

When my son finally talked me into an Internet connection three years ago, I dragged my heels all the way to my keyboard and into the future. Aside from my initial terror of losing my way in cyberspace, I thought the whole thing seemed a little too impersonal. A little too far left of my comfort zone.

Then - wouldn't you know it? - I fell in love with e-mail. It's nothing short of miraculous, and yes, addictive, to anyone who works at home.

Unlike snail mail, e-mail provides instant gratification. It zaps through time zones, recharging old relationships - personal and professional - and opens highways to new ones. It's beautifully economical, too.

At any hour of the day or night, I can send cyber-hugs to my brother-in-law, who's recovering from surgery in New Jersey. Former college roommates in Virginia and Colorado keep in touch more frequently than we could before e-mail. I'm also spared the expense of postage, as well as countless trips to the post office, by e-mailing my articles to various editors.

Yet for all this convenience, I'm convinced there's a higher price: We're losing touch in other ways. For one thing, we're missing the warm, familiar voices of friends and relatives. My only uncle, who lives just 15 miles from my suburban home, has taken to e-mailing his jokes and family updates. And when the phone rings now, I can almost guess who's calling - a telemarketer, my mom, or someone else who isn't a born-again Internet user. Or it's one of my son's friends leaving a message that invariably ends with, "E-mail me tonight, OK?"

While the Internet makes the whole world seem more accessible, it still complicates things.

As psychologist and author Ester Buchholz notes in "The Call of Solitude," new technology was supposed to free our time for leisure, but instead keeps us "sped up and overconnected."

Whenever you invite friendly strangers into your computer, it stands to reason that your personal universe, not to mention your e-mail box, will expand too.

I found I had less time and energy for local connections once I started hooking up with e-pals all over the nation.

But local remains important to me. I like bumping into neighbors at the grocery store downtown, knowing my son's school teachers, and meeting with a women's spirituality group at my neighborhood church. Whenever I stop connecting locally, I lose the precious sense of having roots in a community. (One morning, I was so engrossed in the online edition of the San Francisco Chronicle that I was oblivious to the fire trucks howling down my own block.)

There's always a trade-off, I know. Through an online support group for moms who work at home, I've developed "close" relationships with several writers, two of whom live near Boston. (I live in Michigan.)

While these new-age friendships are truly rewarding, the time spent nurturing them is time I am not spending with longtime friends who live nearby. It's sad, really, that I struggle to negotiate a spare hour for a break with my neighbor and car-pool partner, yet I network daily with dozens of e-mail contacts all over the country.

What I want is to have it both ways - to have the best of the universe at my fingertips without sacrificing my small-town soul.

* Cynthia G. La Ferle is a freelance writer living in Royal Oak, Mich. She writes a weekly column for The Daily Tribune there.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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