Herman: The curse of constant free Wi-Fi

July 20, 2018
Ken Herman
Signs near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem’s Old City lead to the famed church and free Wi-Fi. KEN HERMAN /AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Some footnotes to my recent first trip to Israel. So interesting. Go. Now. Don’t wait as long as my family did. Postponing the trip until there is enduring peace in the Middle East might mean never making the trip.

And don’t miss a day trip, or more, to Petra in Jordan. Look it up. Unbelievable. Once I got over any consternation caused by being a Jew in Jordan, I realized there was nothing to worry about (thanks to friendly tour guide Ahmed) and was able to appreciate the wonder of Petra and what it says about what the minds and hands of humankind can create, even back in the B.C.E. years.

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The trip also reminded me of a truth about something the minds and hands of humankind have created in our time. We’re deeply and irreversibly into a worldwide epidemic with untold consequences: Just about everybody, regardless of culture or religion or creed or race or wardrobe or gender or age or favorite futbol or football team, is walking around staring down at a phone.

It’s everywhere, and it seems to be everyone.

If evolution really works, and there is periodic evidence that it does, this means we’re generations away from an entire human race born with heads permanently staring down at a hand and the device in it.

In Petra, shopkeepers lure shoppers with the 21st century’s most irresistible force: free Wi-Fi. Maybe it’s jealously based on the reality that I’m not important enough to need Wi-Fi 24/7 (or perhaps 24/6 for more Orthodox Jews), even during once-in-a-lifetime tourist experiences.

“We have mint tea and sage tea. Arabic coffee with cardamon,” said a sign on a shop (actually more of a tent) at Petra.

Two hand-scribbled additions to the sign promised, “Free wifi.”

In Jerusalem’s Old City, there’s a sign in multiple languages that says, “To the Holy Sepulcher.” An arrow points the way. A sign next to it, also with a helpful arrow, says, “WiFi free.” It’s in English only, perhaps reflecting the perceived receptive audience for that service.

It made me appreciate all the more a sign in a coffee shop on Mount Bental in the Golan Heights near Syria: “We do not have WiFi. Talk to each other.”

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Is anyone else deeply concerned that the omnipresent phones seem to have become everybody’s constant first priority, regardless of time or place or company?

One other note from my recent trip: When I checked in with Alitalia airline in Tel Aviv for the long journey home, the friendly lady at the counter said she’d been to Austin and really liked our town. It then became clear that she, like lots of folks who visit Austin, was about to mention something specific that she liked. Usually, it’s the local newspaper. Not this time.

She thought for a second or two and said: “Sixth Street.” And, she added, “a great mall.” No way she was old enough to be talking about the late, semi-great Highland Mall, so it had to be Barton Creek Square or maybe the Domain, which may or may not qualify as a mall.

And a travel side note: Kudos to Alitalia for its nostalgic onboard entertainment system that brings passengers back to a simpler time. If I could have figured out how to work it, I think I could have enjoyed a game of Pong.

True story: Flight attendants with black electrical tape and a spoon were able to get a seatmate’s screen in operating condition.

An earlier version of this column miscounted the number of languages on the sign in Jerusalem’s Old City.