Gurdon: In world of texts and tweets, silence is a fire bell in the night

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Local,Meghan Cox Gurdon

"She hasn't posted on Facebook today. I don't like it."

"Well, maybe she's preoccupied."

"Yeah, but she was posting last night."

"Maybe she's sleeping."

"In the hospital? Everyone knows you can't get any sleep in the hospital."

My friend paused and gave a nervous laugh. "What am I saying? Of course, she's probably sleeping. I'm just so used to getting updates that the minute they stop, I think something has gone wrong."

The woman's cousin was having a rough pregnancy, and she'd been in the hospital for a week. Of course, my friend was worried -- yet she was aware that, a few years ago, she wouldn't have fretted with quite so much immediacy.

It wasn't that she would have cared less for her cousin, but that technology had created in her the expectation of continual contact -- not just with her but also with the rest of her family and friends, as well as with a vast cyber-phalanx of other "friends" and "followers."

I was pouring us both another cup of coffee when my friend's phone gave a ping. She jabbed at it, and her face relaxed. "Oh, thank God," she said. "It's okay. She just woke up."

There is a paradox at the heart of all this connection. The closer we all stay in touch with one another, it seems, the more quickly we become concerned when the contact is suspended or interrupted.

After all, who doesn't make assumptions when someone's online or texting status changes? And are these assumptions almost universally negative? Why, yes, they are.

When a friend's signal goes dark, we don't think: "She must be busy having a lovely time," or "She must be traveling." Instead, we think: "Why haven't I heard from her? What's wrong? Is she OK?"

I managed to twist myself into such a state of concern in this way last summer that I actually clambered up the back fence of a friend's house.

The couple had not turned up for dinner with us one night, as planned; that was odd. Two days later, neither of them had played any of their rounds of Words with Friends, a mutual iPhone obsession. The wife wasn't answering her phone. It was not normal, not a bit.

"I know I'm being ridiculous, but still, what if -- ?" I said to my bemused husband, as I jumped in the car. Arriving at the couple's house, I started prowling around.

I knew I was being ridiculous, but still, what if?

The place looked undisturbed and distinctly unransacked. I maneuvered myself up so that I could see over the back fence, bracing for the sight of two corpses in the garden. An untroubled Edenic scene met my ridiculous eyes.

Where were they?

I had just pulled into my own driveway when, with perfect comic timing, my cellphone rang. It was the better half of the missing couple, and she was laughing.

"I'm so sorry we missed dinner!" she said, "We got our dates muddled, and then my phone died. We're in California!"

Ah, technology: It keeps us so close, and yet so far.

Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at mgurdon@washingtonexaminer.com.

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