In defense of the ‘old Yankee mentality’

Last week, a group of executives from companies that provide Internet service in Maine gathered in South Portland to complain that rural Mainers are too slow to demand high-speed Internet access. Charles Lawton — an economist, consultant and columnist for the Portland Press Herald, which ran a story about the meeting — said the  “old Yankee mentality” is to blame for the fact that relatively few rural Mainers are interested in paying companies like Time Warner more money to share more information more quickly.

To which I reply: Thank God for the old Yankee mentality.

Having moved to Maine in 1998, I suppose I’m a “new Yankee,” but the older I get, the more I question the benefits of the new technologies corporations like Time Warner are trying to cram into our busy lives — often aided by millions of our tax dollars. For example, the efforts of private companies to sell high-speed online access are bolstered by the ConnectME Authority, a state entity that has reportedly doled out about $8 million in grants (a.k.a. our money) to help them run wires through the woods.

The Internet has certainly revolutionized my profession: journalism. And by “revolutionized” I mean “almost completely destroyed.”

As Bollard media critic Al Diamon recently reported, the circulation figures for Maine’s largest daily newspapers continue to plummet year after year at rates that suggest a “death spiral.” The loss of print circulation leads to a loss of print advertising revenue that has not been made up by significant gains in online ad revenue. The end result: fewer reporters with less time to dig into important stories, and newspaper consolidations and closures that give readers fewer sources of reliable news.

News delivered faster does not make us wiser; it makes us more distracted, anxious and, thanks to the advent of online comments, considerably meaner. There are very few news events we really need to know about in a matter of minutes, rather than, say, tomorrow morning. I’d prefer to read an article headlined “Huge asteroid speeding toward Earth — impact imminent” sooner rather than later, so I can decide not to pay the cable bill before the impending apocalypse, but otherwise I’m content to sleep in blissful ignorance of the latest political outrage and international tragedy.

(To be fair, the Internet does allow me to upload this column to the BDN’s website, instead of writing it a couple days before deadline and mailing it. I’m saving the cost of a stamp every week, though I’m helping to destroy the U.S. Postal Service, which delivers my check for this column, in the process. )

The Internet executives claim the lack of high-speed service hurts businesses in rural areas. If only these rubes would see the light and fork over more of their hard-earned money to use miraculous new technologies like “the cloud.” Like many rural Mainers, I already have a more reliable, secure and cost-effective place to put my company’s important documents. It’s called “the filing cabinet.”

The availability of high-speed Internet, laptops and iPads in schools has yet to improve student performance in any measurable way. We’ve dumped hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars into machines and networks that serve mainly to distract kids and make it easier for them to cheat and watch porn. Meanwhile, we pay teachers to waste their time trying to figure out new educational software and programs imposed on them every year (Infinite Campus and eBackpack are the latest source of frustration in Portland schools).

E-commerce has done significant damage to our local businesses, due in large part to the sales tax exemption that gives online retailers an unfair advantage over brick-and-mortar stores while depleting state coffers, leading to cuts in public services and higher taxes for the rest of us. Likewise, what could be called “e-entertainment” has wreaked havoc on our culture, sucking our attention into screens and away from one another.

Maine is an attractive place for visitors and new residents precisely because we’re perceived to be one of the few states where people don’t live with their head in “the cloud.” In rural areas of our state, harried Americans besieged by the demands of increasingly intrusive machines can experience the freedom bestowed when one is out of cell-phone range. (Granted, most tourists must first overcome a couple hours of panic before they attain this sense of relief.)

Mainers should be proud that we prefer to conduct business in person, with a smile and a handshake, not a smiley emoticon. The “old Yankee mentality” will ultimately outlast all the latest technological fads, if for no other reason than this: Unlike Internet networks and “clouds,” it’s remarkably asteroid-proof.

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Chris Busby

About Chris Busby

Chris Busby is editor and publisher of The Bollard, a monthly magazine about Portland. He writes a weekly column for the BDN.