Panta Rei

In college, I was a philosophy major. I remember well reading Heraclitus who said, “panta rei,” everything changes. How clever he was even before this era of galloping technology! He certainly could have been speaking of modes of communication.

The year before my husband and I married, we were living far away from each other, he at Fort Knox, Kentucky, and I in Philadelphia. We kept in touch by mail. We wrote letters to each other, folded them into envelopes, addressed the envelopes and put a stamp on them, and then dropped them into the mailbox. A letter would take between 3 and 5 days to arrive and so minimum response time was about a week. But telephone calls were expensive, so it was our only way of communicating on an ongoing basis.

Once we married, my parents kept in touch with us by telephone. At first the calls were only a couple of times a week and for a couple of minutes each, but as prices fell, the conversations became longer and more frequent.

By the time our oldest son reached college, I was able to email him through my account at university in Philadelphia to his in Jerusalem on a big mainframe computer. As I pushed the button to send his letter into cyberspace, the white letters on the black screen traced the path of the letter from our internal system to somewhere in New York to Paris, to Tel Aviv, and then on to the Hebrew University. The mail wouldn’t always take the same route. Sometimes it would get somewhere in Europe and remain there for seconds or even minutes. Chatting involved a “tell” command that would require the address of the other person and then a quoted message that could run until the end of one line of text. Each line started with “tell” and the address, and even with a macro key, communicating was difficult. Messages would take seconds to minutes to be transmitted.

By the time I moved to Israel in 1995, it was possible to download email and read it off line. After all, at that time there was only dial-up and we were paying by the minute for the telephone line. Rates were lower after 11 p.m. and before 8 a.m., and that was when I usually sent my emails to my husband who still resided in the States. However, with the possibility of offline reading and composing, I was able to send him brief letters several times a day. Meanwhile, as my friends one by one discovered email and we found each other, they began writing letters– long, interesting letters about their life. I think that was the golden age of email. It lasted just a short time until….

People began to send jokes to each other. One could receive the same joke several times in a day. Children’s letters to G-d came around several times a year and still are recycled to this day. It was good to know that my friends were still alive, but the jokes were like a wave across a crowded room.

With the introduction of ICQ and then AIM and other programs, chatting became easier and more satisfying. Once again, there was a method of real communication. There was even the possibility of repartee, but it requires the confluence of free time on both sides.

And then the picture era arrived. Suddenly people began communicating by 1. sending pictures, 2. sending URLs for collections of pictures, and 3. sending PowerPoint presentations. The pictures of family and friends are really special. Many of the PowerPoint presentations are amazing– especially the ones with pictures of nature. But they lack that personal greeting that lets me know what the other person is thinking and feeling.

And now, we are into the YouTube age. Instead of sending pictures, we are sending each other movies– of favorite songs, of comedy routines, of miraculous natural phenomena. But where are the people behind these messages? Sometimes it seems to me that the easier it is to communicate, the less we do it. Friends sharing their lives together over miles and seas? Panta rei.

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