Message in a Bottle.

Some time ago I heard about a couple of guys who were going to use helium balloons to send up disposable cameras with instructions for whoever finds the cameras to use them to take pictures of themselves and their lives and then send the cameras back.

Not good for the environment, but possibly an interesting way to meet people. http://cargocollective.com/seis/One-Disposable-Camera-Fourteen-Helium-Balloons

Then, as now, I thought the idea was a singularly bad one, mainly for environmental reasons: the balloons were almost certainly going to end up choking a sea turtle or an albatross when they blew out to sea and came to rest somewhere in the Atlantic.

On the other hand, there was a certain charm about it all. Everyone loves the idea of some Robinson Crusoe tucking a message into a bottle and flinging it into the surf in the one-in-a-million chance that someone will stumble over it on a distant beach and start a search-and-rescue operation.

Writing a blog is much like that. You put together a message, and you send it out into cyberspace, where it jostles and drifts with the millions of other messages floating around out there, until — you hope — it comes to rest on some laptop or iPad or tablet in London or Carson City or Biloxi, and you get a chuckle, maybe, or a sympathetic nod, from somebody, somewhere. You may never know whose toe is getting stubbed tripping over the bottle half-buried in the sand, but you do it anyway, in the faith that sooner or later it will wash up, and it will be noticed, and a connection will be made.

For Memorial Day this year, I posted an article that my mother had written about her experiences as a child living on Hickam Field — Pearl Harbor — at the time of the bombing by Japanese planes that brought the United States into the Second World War. The response from friends and acquaintances was gratifying.

More surprising, however, was the email I received a couple of days later from Hawaii, from a volunteer who was helping to archive and coordinate the personal histories of the people who were there in that place, on that day. She had read the post, and had information about my mother’s family that she wanted to share. I put her in touch with my mother, and sparks have been flying ever since. She knew things about my grandfather that even my mother didn’t know, and had photos and ship’s manifests and other personal memorabilia of enormous value, both in the broader historical context, and for my family specifically.

This sort of thing does happen in life, but not often enough. I wonder if these connections, these “bolts out of the blue”, are so rare simply because we so rarely take the time to send up our balloons, or to toss our bottles into the surf; we’re so convinced that there’s really no one out there, that the best we can hope for is not an answer to our hail, but just a hollow echo.

According to Wikipedia, there were 156 million blogs in existence.by February of 2011. A survey by Technorati indicated that the average blogger updates his or her site two to three times per week. Conservatively that means that there are around three hundred million blog posts per week, worldwide. It’s safe to say that there’s a lot of hot air going up in those balloons, but with those numbers there’s also a pretty fair chance that some legitimate communication is also taking place. Even at a crowded and noisy party, it’s sometimes possible to have a really good conversation.

The decades since that war have seen a proliferation of information technology — we are all connected, at least potentially, to so many other people, in so many ways. Even so, there is a consensus that the quality of the communication has declined even as the quantity has grown: we’re doing a lot more talking, but saying a lot less in the process.

Is this true? Who can really say? The value of human communication can only be measured in subjective terms, and only on the basis of one conversation at a time. Broad generalizations may reflect statistical truths, but may also mask very real relationships between people and places, relationships that might never have existed in the days when communication, while more substantive, was also more difficult.

In my mother’s case, the connection that she’s made with her new friend in Hawaii is a relationship that extends not only over distance, but also across time, connecting her more intimately with her own past, providing context and new levels of detail for memories that have become faded and worn with more than seventy years of handling. For me, it’s a reassurance that, although this blog is only one of many millions, out of so much background noise can still emerge a coherent and meaningful conversation.

Thanks to a total stranger living several thousand miles away, my family and our awareness of our own place in history have been enlarged and enriched.

So, I sit here — squinting in one eye because of a too-long day spent in front of computer screens and behind the wheel of a car, dog-tired  — pecking away at this keyboard long enough to do this one last chore before bed.

Is what I’m doing important? Against the backdrop of events taking place right now in Syria, in China, in Egypt — even in Wisconsin — the answer would have to be no.

Is it worth doing? I think that’s a more complicated question. Every conversation connects at least two people along some common thread, providing an alternative to conflict, to loneliness, to misunderstanding, to isolation. People fight when they can’t communicate, but a conversation, however trivial, at least opens a channel through which empathy can flow, given the opportunity.

So, even though I realize that I’m just adding to the pollution of a cybersphere already cluttered beyond belief, I’m going to keep on doing it anyway; you just never know when someone is going to pick up that bottle, take out the message, and smile.