Living off the grid can be a fearful prospect

It’s nice, from time to time, to be reminded of the past, and, earlier this week, I had my opportunity to do so while watching a 1949 film for a class on post-war Hollywood. The Academy Award-winning film, A Letter to Three Wives, reflects upon the marriages of three women in light of news that their frenemy, Addie Ross, has run off with one of their husbands.

Though the film is meant to illuminate the American social tensions emerging and developing at the dawn of the ’50s, it’s hard to watch the movie without thinking about society as it exists today.

There’s a great scene, close to the beginning, that arguably says more about how we communicate today than how the characters interacted when the film actually takes place. The three women, all good friends, are prepared to embark upon a ship to do work with a group of Boy Scouts. A messenger then arrives bearing a letter from their dear friend, Addie. They discover that Addie has penned a message notifying them that she has left town with one of their husbands.

At this point, I half expected one of them to whip out their smartphones and launch a full-on barrage of calls to their respective spouses. It is, after all, the course I would have chosen. I will admit, albeit a tad pathetically, that I was equally shocked when they did not check his Facebook or scour his Twitter page. They didn’t even attempt to snoop around his email account.

No. They didn’t do any of these things. The three women simply turned around, boarded the ship and bon voyage they went.

Throughout their journey, each woman’s thoughts drifted to whether it was her husband with whom the much-sought-after Addie had eloped. It was an anxious, contemplative type of thinking, but certainly void of any active effort to contact their husbands — to reach out to them and find out, once and for all, whether they had fallen prey to Addie’s classy overtures.

The absence of this effort struck me as odd, to say the least. Again, these are three women who have just discovered that their marriages might be over. If your husband potentially just left you for another woman, I’m guessing your immediate reaction would fall far from nonchalantly dealing with the problem later. If it were my spouse at play, I would have immediately sprinted off the boat, iPhone in hand, to confirm the veracity of the claim.

And therein lies the difference between then and now. Communication technology then was far more static. One did not take for granted that they would be able to reach another person in a matter of minutes. Rather, correspondence required a measure of waiting on each end. It goes without saying that things have changed.

Communication can now surmount the harshest geographic barriers and that anachronistic term known as “availability” because, in all actuality, we are now expected to always be available. This is why I would find it completely logical that the women’s instinctual reaction should have been to dash down the ship’s ramp to check that their marriages were still, you know, existent.

Most of us were raised to always be reachable. (Guilty.) And many who weren’t raised this way have adjusted to the pressure (my mom). Interestingly, my mom used to tell me stories about how she would be stuck somewhere without a ride “and we didn’t have cellphones back then” so they were actually, honest to God, stuck. But she used to say this in a kind of “those were the days” manner.

And even she has folded under the pressure for constant communication. My mom is, in fact, always available, just as she expects my brother and me to be (something we can attest to quite well).

It would be too simple to say this trend was not a long time coming (airlines are kind enough to still remind us that two-way pagers existed before the cellphone). Still, the pressure to remain constantly connected to the grid has reached a high point in recent years.

And, for me, it’s given birth to a new fear: simply being disconnected from the grid. I worry that one day I’ll be riding the subway — yes, Los Angeles does in fact have one — and be stuck underground in a dangerous situation with no wireless signal or Internet connection. And, in this example, I find my fear to be entirely warranted and completely rational.

I’m not the only one, either. The London Underground, for example, is rolling out wireless access at its stations. Though the connection is probably often used for Snapchat and Vine, its existence provides a measure of public safety. If the technology is there, it seems only logical to take steps to alleviate this fear of disconnection.

But this fear is, in many cases, a double-edged sword. Though it might be undesirable in today’s society to be unreachable, there’s something important about stepping away from the world and thinking. Isolation allows for reflection and thought. Not having the ability to respond immediately provides an opportunity to analyze a situation and think critically.

In this sense, the fear of disconnection from the grid is entirely unwarranted and completely irrational. It shouldn’t be a fear at all. It should be welcome.

To translate it to A Letter to Three Wives, the women make no effort to contact their husbands and instead board the ship. But in doing so, they are afforded time to consider their marriages, remember how they began, where they erred and what they valued (or didn’t.) And, with the time afforded by not immediately reacting, their relationships, in most cases, end stronger rather than weaker.


Daniel Rothberg is a junior majoring in political science. His column “Twenty-First Century Fears” runs on Thursdays.

Follow Daniel on Twitter @DanielRothberg