February 24th, 2012
That’s the view from my balcony on the Caribbean island to which I returned this year for the 5th time in a row, an annual mid-term-break ritual that is becoming as natural as smiling. I snapped the sunset the other day just as the sun had settled beyond the horizon and the sky was starting to glow with the kind of orange-pink pallet one could only find in tropical climes. Sunsets are beautiful everywhere and Canadian sunsets, particularly in the fall, can illuminate the northern skies with the most astonishing deep blues and purples. But let’s face it, it’s way better being warm in February, and a total privilege being able to assess the merits of the sun’s ocean daily dip into the sea, ranking sunsets for the intensity of their performances and luminosity in a sort of indulgent tourist game.
This particular one was outstanding—a 9.8 out of 10, for sure, even if the photograph fails to grasp the quality of light and air. That’s why I was so surprised—and then enraged—when the young(er) couple next door decided to entertain the rest of the hotel’s sunset voyeurs with a completely unselfconscious conversation on Skype with someone’s parents, sisters, and, yes, family dog. I am talking loud—shriekingly loud. She was the main perpetrator, while He, to his credit, seemed almost shy and sullen by comparison. This was her family, back in Kansas, wherever, after all, and there was nothing—no tsking from adjacent balconies, no combative grunts of complaint from her neighbours, not even the most astonishing natural solar show on earth—that could detract her from her main mission, that being an unseemly bellowing into the screen about what a great day of snorkeling she had had. Yes, we heard it all—the birthday snorkeling, the meal the previous night, the fabulousness of the hotel, the craft market, the catamarans…. You get, or can hear, the picture. Not only were we subjected to all of these banal details in crushing detail at art-grabbing decibel levels, but we were compelled to endure from the other side of the screen, so to speak, matching shrieks of approval and canine yaps of excitement from Dick the Wonder Dog out in Kansas.
The sun didn’t care a jot that its magnificent performance was being ignored by Her or undermined for us, but we cared. I love Skype and think it’s the smartest invention since telephone headsets. I could even appreciate Her enthusiasm for calling home and relaying the wonders of her experience to mom and dad and Dick. But why did she have to do it outdoors for all the West Indies to hear and in the middle of the greatest show on earth?
The answer can only lie – at least largely– in youth. I figured you’d have to be pretty young and/or immature not to notice you were surrounded by other people who were not at all interested in what you had for breakfast, even if it was a lusciously just-baked pain au chocolate. That She didn’t seem to notice the sky falling gloriously into the sea is beyond my comprehension. Could be She sees sunsets all the time where She’s from. See one seen ‘em all is so not true with sunsets, of course. Who knows? Could be that for Her Technology trumps Nature. The miracle of real-time visual contact with the family trumps the miracle of a giant golden orb arcing out of view.
I was bothered by this episode for far too long, couldn’t quite figure out why it made me feel so mean-spirited. To be fair, there I was snapping some pictures of that golden orb with my own handy technological device, putting something between me and Nature, as tourists always do, and as Susan Sontag so brilliantly observed in her On Photography many years before email, texting, and Skype changed us all for good. But at least, as I tell myself, I was focused on the right object.
I think it has everything to do with privacy, not technology. Technology enables the invasion of privacy, as we know, too well, even as it enables intimacy, as the call to mom, dad, and Dick demonstrates. It’s just that here on a winter vacation and away from the necessary social traffic of others I just didn’t want my space invaded by all that personal noise. It was like being forced to get close to someone in whom I had no interest, worse than a blind date. I want to hear myself think, not hear what She is thinking.
One has to admit that there’s no escaping it, this intrusion of the technological, this contempt for privacy. It’s with us now, as real and at times unwanted as the cigar fumes from the guy in the next beach chair. It’s a mixed blessing, sure. A big hunk of miraculously flying steel got me here in the first place. I shouldn’t complain.