The Old School Bell: a formative symbol

Every time I hear a school bell, it grounds me to who I once was, who I became, and therefore, who I now am. Like a mother’s heartbeat, it fills me with a sense of security. It once gave me the boundaries of my school day: asserting itself vigorously when we began at 8.45am, lowering its tone to a “silent bell” when we filed into the chapel, it shifted my mind from subject to subject during the day by demarcating the “periods”, releasing me temporarily to the tuck shop for maalu paan (fish roll), pol toffee (coconut candy) or bulto (a solidified treacly candy) during the “intervals”, and finally, when my mind was boggled and my body longed for release, it sounded freedom that sent us rushing out at 3.30pm to play cricket, rugby, marbles or simply ogle the girls at our sister school next door.

The bell summons formative images to mind: the breakup of fisticuffs and bloody noses out in the playground because we had to be ready for class, the dreaded Prefects walking the corridors looking for tell-tale signs of lawbreakers, the shrewd teachers who used the silences that the bell demanded to study our faces and file away those whom they believed would make it in life and those who would not, and therefore, those whom they should develop and those whom they should ignore.

The bell spelled reward and punishment. Reward came in releasing us to the playground during intervals and after school; it came in switching us to our favourite periods or ushering in the teachers we loved the most. Reward was being dispatched by the bell to the library, where the world of books awaited those who looked beyond, and where a cocoon of hushed gossiping would envelop those who played the system. Punishment came when you missed the bell and had to take that “long walk” to the office to get a late chit. Punishment also came when the glorious bell rang at day’s end and those who had not done their work knew that it signaled detention, not freedom.

The bell spelled separation: on my first day of school, as my mother let go of my hand and I entered the gates, I sensed that my life had changed forever. It rang during moments of prayer when Catholics separated from non-Catholics, the latter to play and master the art of marbles and other sports, the former to pray in the chapel seeking divine intervention so that their non-Catholic colleagues would not improve their game and beat them.

Bells have existed since ancient times and in many civilizations and have comforted us in times of despair, accompanied us in battle and in revelry, announced births, deaths, marriages, and called us to worship. Even today, when I hear that sound, be it a church bell or a VIA Rail train pulling into the station, it takes me back to that most significant of chimes – my old school bell.

Digital Natives, Digital Immigrants & Resident Aliens

The above are new terms that have emerged to describe the young, middle•aged and old people in our digital society today; a radical immigration model for a new world where one’s degree of foreignness grows with age.

The theory goes that young people, “the digital natives,” i.e. those born after the Internet know nothing about paper encyclopaedias, postal mail and about paying for content. Their preferred shop for most things is found online. They don’t have to memorize anything – just ask God, I mean, Google. Their relationships are vast and temporary, their attention spans are fragile and they outgrow things pretty quick, not just clothes – just ask Facebook. They are often seen talking to themselves in public, and if you see the little earpiece called a tooth, you know that they are not mad.

On the other side of the divide are the old people, “the resident aliens,” born and matured before the Internet. They wonder why postal rates are going up and door•to•door postal delivery is vanishing as their limbs are just starting to give way. They still like to connect with people in person at the mall or at the church, and they use the telephone a lot, especially to call long distance. They maintain lifelong relationships with friends and family and volunteer spare time to worthy causes, as long as retirement incomes remain steady and recession•proof. The Internet is a mystery, another pesky thing that they need to stay away from for there is all that reputed scamming and pornography out there (unless one is into that kinda thing, heh, heh!).

Then there are those in the middle, the digital immigrants, who were born before the Internet but who matured during the period when cyberspace went from a mild pastime to a robust highway along which most information began to flow. Some of these people gave up desk jobs of pushing paper and started pushing buttons on their desktops instead. Some careers changed, some were lost forever. The digital immigrants had to adapt or perish with each subsequent wave of technology, and they found it hard, for their retirements were diminished or vanished and they were re•inventing themselves to just stay relevant, even if they did not believe in the roles they now had to play. They compete with the digital natives for jobs and yet long to be resident aliens.

Being an immigrant (a real one) and now being classified a digital immigrant, suits me, for the art of survival is similar: stay alert, continuously learn, do not be afraid to experiment and make mistakes, take nothing for granted, work smart, and live lean. And yet, every new version of technology takes me further away from the centre.  I wonder how tough it must be for real world natives who have come to expect a world of order and entitlement, and who now find themselves as digital immigrants or resident aliens in digital society? They did not consciously immigrate anywhere, like I did, but their world changed on them nevertheless, landing them in a foreign place. This is the hardest kind of immigration to undertake – the reluctant kind. It likens one to a refugee of war or other social upheaval.

I wonder if these considerations are taken into account as we push along our relentless path to automate everything, or whether these costs will have to be borne by the larger society when we end up with a majority of jobless digital immigrants and resident aliens run by a minority of digital natives and their tech toys.