Friday, April 24, 2009
Consider Cary Grant in "North by Northwest." Sinister forces may be chasing him for reasons he can't comprehend, but this is 1959, and neither the BlackBerry nor the Global Positioning System chip that goes inside it has been invented. And so the mysterious crop-duster has no way to pinpoint which cornstalks he's hiding under. The truck Grant steals also lacks a GPS that could help enemies foil his getaway.
Observe Gregory Peck in "The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit." He suffers hideous flashbacks from fighting in World War II, and his wife thinks he's a dud as a breadwinner. But this is 1956, and there are no personal computers, much less online shopping. So his wife can't vent her frustrations by sitting in the kitchen and buying fine China on eBay. She can't pass the family's bank account information to tech-savvy identity thieves.
When Peck commutes by train, he can ruminate in peace. Cell phones are a thing of the future, so he is not sent over the edge by an air-raid-siren ringtone from another passenger's belt clip. On the contrary, it's a calm scene, as fellow commuters hide behind a wall of silent newspapers.
All is secure at home. Peck can rest assured that no one is leering at his daughter's video blog. His boy isn't holed up in a bedroom playing violent video games embedded with product placements for Grand Cherokees or Coca-Cola. His children may be glued to the TV, but there are only about five channels, and none of them plays porn.
Watch Jimmy Stewart in "Vertigo." A retired detective in San Francisco, he suffers a terrible fear of heights. But this is 1958, and personal electronic devices are not in his world. So when Stewart finds himself wobbling at some elevation, he's spared the potentially fatal distraction of a cell phone blinking, ringing or buzzing in his pocket.
Stewart is being played the fool by a friend's wife or her double -- one or both of whom he loves. Luckily for him, there's no such thing as MySpace, so the people messing with his head can't multiply the confusion through fantasized online identities.
All three men are flooded by disturbing information, but hyper-connectivity does not pile on stimuli. They don't have to answer iPhones or sync their iPods for podcast updates.
Motoring is safer without electronic distractions. A drugged Grant barely survives his treacherous drive along a seaside cliff. Fortunately for him, no disembodied female voice is coming out of the car's satellite navigation system telling him, "In 300 feet, turn left, then right."
Peck's wife goes berserk, then jumps behind a wheel for a reckless all-night ride. Had she been able to text message at the same time, the story might have ended less happily.
The men all find brief respite from their stresses in bars, restaurants and dining cars. This is the age before tech-enabled privacy invasions or interruptions. So their companions aren't tweeting details of the conversation to unknown parties. They can't check their email under the table or jabber on a cell phone. No one is writing or transmitting restaurant reviews during the course of a meal.
These men may be hounded, tormented -- but not by social networking. When Grant makes an escape, his pursuers can't tweet his whereabouts to their cohorts. And while Peck must deal with the consequences of his wartime love affair, he needn’t worry that his former Army buddies might circulate embarrassing pictures on Facebook.
Consider these characters, who for all their troubles have escaped the advent of electronic harassment. Of course, nobody has to own a cell phone -- but most people really do. It's the times, I suppose.
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