But can she taste tea while the Wi-Fi is on?

Colby Cosh on headlines, metaphors and, well, facts

The folks who are allegedly rendered helplessly ill by Wi-Fi signals make for good copy if you’re the sort of reporter who likes to sow phrases like “debate rages” and “divergent views” in your sentences. (It’s an acquired taste, I guess.) Louise Campbell of Nanoose Bay, B.C., is a nice old lady who says she is being driven bananas by the wireless internet on the ferry to the mainland. If she were just prone to seasickness or nebulous loathing of boats, one supposes some kind soul would advise her to move to an actual continent or learn to love shopping local. But since her body has an unwanted ability to instantly detect wireless radiation to which most of us are blessedly transparent, there she is in the newspaper.

“For me, my day is thinking about how long I can spend in the mall, because there’s Wi-Fi in the mall. If I’m going to a friend’s house, I have to ask them to turn the Wi-Fi off,” [Campbell] said.

Campbell claims her condition causes her to become lightheaded when exposed to wireless devices. A two-hour trip into the city can leave her fatigued for the rest of the day. Campbell avoids restaurants, coffee shops, movie theatres and anywhere she expects exposure.

The situation impelled Campbell to call on B.C. Ferries to provide a way to limit exposure to the ship’s wireless technology while on voyages to the Mainland.

One does wonder what the hell’s the whole point of going to the mainland if you can’t go into a restaurant or a café or a cinema. On the other hand, if I have two hours of errands to run, I’m often knocked out for the rest of the day too, so maybe I should turn off my Wi-Fi.

I wouldn’t dream of spoiling the “poor electrosensitives” game for enterprising assignment editors, but then, they wouldn’t entertain a sick-role player like Miss Campbell if her claim was that bad vibes and weird cooking scents from ethnic neighbours were making her light-headed. The Times-Colonist puts her in the paper because she makes a nice metaphor for technological alienation and because nobody on the news desk is sure how you would set out to test a claim like hers. They haven’t heard of Dr. Muriel Bristol, who claimed she could tell if you’d put the milk in the tea first or vice versa. Which, by the way, she could.

Could very extensive double-blinded testing of literally thousands of self-described “electrosensitives” be at all relevant to this news item? You would never know from the item itself. It has been shown time and time again that under laboratory conditions, “electrosensitives” cannot actually tell if they’re near a source of Wi-Fi like radiation; their reported symptoms, and boy do they report them, bear no relation to whether or not they are actually being exposed. This doesn’t mean Wi-Fi isn’t giving us all spleen cancers or liver spots that are going to start appearing spontaneously in the year 2030, which is a totally different imaginary possibility that a small industry of Cosmic Holistic Total Environment Health Specialists likes to volley back and forth. Miss Campbell’s complaint is more specific than that: it’s a claim of immediate detection ability in the form of “lightheadedness.”

I was going to say that this is like claiming to have a superpower, but then I realized the “like” part is factually incorrect. This woman is essentially telling the Times-Colonist she’s an X-Man. Would she be taken just as seriously if she said she could see the infrared spectrum? There isn’t any difference: that’s just another electromagnetic frequency range for which humans lack a known perceptual organ. But since the ability in this case is cunningly presented as a “disability,” Mr. Editor thinks he must take it more seriously than he does the plot of a comic book. What magic there is in a prefix!

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