When I travelled to western Africa in 1997 and 1998, the only electronic devices in my backpack were a Canon Rebel SLR camera (with real film!), a cassette recorder, and a bulky Polaroid. The latter two items didn’t last long. Sand from the harmattan winds jammed the mechanics of both the cassette recorder and the Polaroid within a few months of my arrival. This turned out to be a blessing since these things weighed a ton and I hardly used them.

This week I am packing for a trip to Belfast. I leave Wednesday. My pack will contain a digital camera, a ‘netbook’ computer (which I love), a cell-phone (which I despise), a second generation iPod, a digital voice recorder, headphones, a couple USB memory sticks and all the requisite chargers, wires, batteries and plug adapters said devices demand. Most remarkable is the notion that, aside from the iPod, I actually need these things.

How did this happen?

I don’t deny or bemoan the utility of these devices. Each makes my work and research much easier, though not necessarily more efficient. Still, I miss the days when my backpack contained only laundry and toiletries. Notebooks and maps. Handwritten letters from home, fetched from the poste restante, and worth more than any circuit-stuffed contraption. I still have all of these things. The letters fill a box in my office. My notebooks, scrawled with writing I hardly recognize, line a bookshelf. The maps, though torn, remain.