Recently I was left alone for the entirety of a Saturday.  On rare days when I feel affluent, I’ll go and purchase supplies to take on the many tasks that need doing around the house—most of the books on my office are still stacked on the floor for lack of shelves.  I can build them, but that takes money.  Often when I have an unclaimed day I plan it out weeks in advance.  Things have been busy enough of late that I didn’t even have the time to do that.  All the sudden I woke up on a November Saturday with tabula rasa in front of me.  Then I realized one of the constant pressures I face: TMI.  One of my nieces—the one who started this blog, actually—first introduced me to Too Much Information (TMI).  I don’t get out much, you see.

Like most people who flirt with tech, I snap photos with my phone.  When we go somewhere that I suspect we’ll never be able to afford to go again, I take an actual camera and let fly like I work for National Geographic or something.  Since my laptop’s on a data diet, all of these end up on a terabyte drive, hurriedly downloaded as IMG or DSCN files, waiting to be sorted later.  Do this since the inception of digital photographs and you’ll get a sense of the magnitude of the problem.  My laptop says it’s full and I have to delete images with that dire warning they’ll go away forever.  I back them up.  When was the last time I did this?  I wrote it down, but I forgot where.  What did I even name the file?  Did I back it up or is it on my hard disc?  Why are there eight copies of the same photograph?  I spent the day sorting, virtually.

Before I knew it, the sun was beginning to set.  I’d awoken at 4:00 (being a weekend I slept in), and after a day of organizing electronic photos into electronic folders, I’d barely made a dent.  Deduping alone takes so much time.  Some of the pictures, while nice, I couldn’t remember at all.  I shudder, though, thinking about grandparents that burned old photos because nobody remembered who they were any more.  Then I realized that our lives are the most documented of any in history (so far) but nobody really cares.  You could learn an awful lot about some stranger just by going through their photos—where they’ve been, what they thought important, and just how obsessive they could be.  As I wound up the day, I realized why I don’t get out much any more.

The God Test

Humans don’t mean to be cruel, I’m pretty sure, when they test animals for intelligence.  We’re a curious lot, perhaps a bit too self-absorbed, but we want to know how other animals are like us.  Of course, we reserve actual thinking for ourselves, given how well we’ve managed to conserve our only environment, but we grant some special spark to our biological kin.  So we devise tests for them.  Since we can’t get beyond human experience, many of these tests are devised for creatures like us.  When animals fail our superiority is reconfirmed.  Then it’s back to the lab.  I’ve got to wonder how it feels to the subject of the experiment (or is it object?).  Some being that has mastered the art of capturing you, perhaps with the aid of alien technology, is trying to get you to understand something that’s only clear from its (the captor’s) viewpoint.  You need to suss out that viewpoint and solve the puzzle in the same way.

This makes me think of many forms of religion.  We’re born to a lower species (human) as the experimental subjects of gods, or a God, who watch(es) to see how we figure things out.  There’s a right answer, of course, but we’re only given hints as to what it is.  We’re given toys to play with—some of them dangerous—and we’re allowed to select clowns and buffoons to lead us.  We can kill off unthinkable numbers of our own kind and the only clue that we’ve succeeded is some tasty treat at the end.  Of course, we have to assume that the intelligence governing this whole farce is much greater than our own.  Doesn’t feel so good, does it?

Holism is the ability to see a continuity in all of nature.  And nature doesn’t just mean this warm globe on which we find ourselves.  It’s vast and mysterious and some parts of it are very cold and others very hot.  There are places we cannot go, and others that seem inevitable, given the choices.  Like the victims of bullies we don’t think about the larger system, but seek to impose our wills on those who see things differently than we do.  Some tote guns while others pack books.  All of us will shoo away insects that buzz too close.  Most of the animals “beneath” us will simply eat them.  Is this all a game?  Or is it some kind of experiment where we have to guess the answer, but with only a fraction of the information required?

Whose Computer?

Whose computer is this?  I’m the one who paid for it, but it is clearly the one in control in this relationship.  You see, if the computer fails to cooperate there is nothing you can do.  It’s not human and despite what the proponents of AI say, a brain is not just a computer.  Now I’m not affluent enough to replace old hardware when it starts slowing down.  Silicon Valley—and capitalism in general—hate that.  I suppose I’m not actually paid well enough to own a computer.  I started buying laptops for work when Nashotah House wouldn’t provide faculty with computers.  Then as an itinerant adjunct it was “have laptop, will travel (and pay bills).”  I even bought my own projector.  At least I thought I was buying it.

I try to keep my software up to date.  The other day a red dot warned me that I had to clear out some space on my disc so Catalina could take over.  It took three days (between work and serving the laptop) to back-up and delete enough files to give it room.  I started the upgrade while I was working, when my personal laptop can rest.  When I checked in it hadn’t installed.  Throwing a string of technical reasons at me in a dialogue box, my OS told me that I should try again.  Problem was, it told me this at 3:30 in the morning, when I do my own personal work.  I had no choice.  One can’t reason with AI.  When I should’ve been writing I was rebooting and installing, a process that takes an hour from a guy who doesn’t have an hour to give.

As all of this was going on I was wondering who owned whom.  In college professors warned against “keyboard compositions.”  These were literal keyboards and they meant you shouldn’t type up your papers the night before they were due, writing them on your typewriter.  They should’ve been researched and “written” before being typed up.  That’s no longer an option.  This blog has well over a million words on it.  Who has time to handwrite a million words, then type them up all in time to post before starting work for the day?  And that’s in addition to the books and articles I write for actual publication.  And the novels and short stories.  For all of this I need my laptop, the Silver to my Lone Ranger, to be ready when I whistle.  Instead it’s dreaming its digital dreams and I’m up at 3:30 twiddling my thumbs.

Rescued, Technically

One of the scariest tropes in horror (or other) movies is where the protagonist has to rely on the monster (or antagonist) to be rescued.  All the time the viewer is wondering if the monster is going to turn on the hero since, well, it’s a monster.  The tension builds because the situation is untenable to begin with, but there is no other way out.  So lately that’s the way I’ve been feeling about technology.  The first and only time I drove to Atlantic City (it was for a concert some years back), navigating by GPS was still new.  In fact, I didn’t have a device but my brother did so he brought it along.  I remember not trusting it to know the local traffic rules, but once we got into an unfamiliar city I had to rely on it to get us to the venue.  The fact that I lived to be writing this account suggests that it worked.

I no longer commute much.  Still, I’m occasionally required to go into the New York office for a day.  It’s a long trip from here, and to handle the true monster of New York City traffic, I have to leave the house before 4 a.m. to get a spot on the earliest possible bus.  If I do that I can justify catching the bus that leaves the Port Authority before 5 p.m., the daily urban traffic apocalypse.  The last time I did this, just this week, it was raining.  Rain almost always leads to accidents in New Jersey, where the concept of safe following distance has never evolved.  And so I found myself on a bus off route because the major interstate leading into Pennsylvania was completely closed.  The driver announced he wasn’t lost, just trying to find the back way home.  When the streets turned curvy and suburban he asked if anyone had a maps app on their phone.

Lately I’ve been complaining about smartphones.  Truth be told, I do use mine as a GPS when I get lost.  It’s at that stage in an iPhone’s life when it shows you a full battery one second and the next second it’s completely dead, so I let my fellow passengers—every single one of whom has a smartphone—do the navigating.  People on the narrow, off-route roads might’ve wondered what a bus was doing way out here, but we finally did get to the park-n-ride.  The monster had helped us to escape.  And people wonder why I like horror movies…

Who Owns Whom?

Who’s ready to sue?  Now, I’m not a litigious person, but when someone (and corporations are people, according to the law) to whom I’ve been paying buckoodles  of money for many years tries to force me to do things as quid pro quo, it’s time to sue.  I started using Apple products during the Reagan Administration.  I can’t recall how many laptops, computers, iPods, iPads, iPhones, and iTunes cards that entails, but it’s been a year’s salary’s worth at least.  Okay, my phone—which is a classic—has been fine until… and this is the kicker… we bought a new phone for my wife.  Since then my iPhone has started having problems it never had before.  Our service provider knows we bought a new phone.  There’s got to be more money available there, “What’s he got in his pockets, my precious?”, right?  As soon as it was activated, mine began acting up.  Coincidence?

Look, tech gods.  I don’t need a whole universe in my pocket.  My phone is a camera, a GPS, and a text-sender.  That’s all I need it to be.  I can still read cursive.  I have LPs—not the modern retro ones either—in my living room.  I own pens and pencils.  You have no right to make me buy an upgrade I don’t even need!  I hate the capitalist game.  Come here into my closet with me.  (It’s okay, nothing weird, I promise.)  See this shirt?  I still wear it.  I bought it in 1981.  I know that’s 38 years ago.  That’s precisely my point.  The shirt’s still good, so why throw it out?  You guys in Silicon Valley need to get out more.  There’s more to life than upgrading people’s software while they’re asleep.  I don’t know how you sue gods, but I’m going to figure it out.

Some of us are minimally middle class.  Maybe in California you don’t have a lot of rain, but around here we do.  And that means roof replacements.  Maybe the tech gods pay you guys better, but I spent my youth earning a Ph.D. so I could earn less than a tree-trimmer in Iowa.  That is true, by the way.  So the last thing I need is some tech god extorting me to buy a new device.  Leave my phone alone!  And don’t tell me the tech doesn’t support it because I know people with cellphones over a decade old that still work.  Republicans and tech gods know how to ignore subpoenas, I guess.  But it’s time for the rest of us to file a lawsuit.  Who’s with me?

Home Phone?

I wonder if anyone’s done a study on how cell phones affect our psyches.  The other day my wife upgraded her phone.  What with this being technology and all, the setting up rendered both her old and new phones useless so we would have to go back to our dealer.  Since she has to drive to work and I don’t, I gave her my phone for the day.  I use my phone little on most days.  Soon, however, I began to feel very isolated.  Anyone could reach me by email or landline, but I was without my cell phone for about 10 hours and I grew edgy.  What had happened to me?  Was I experiencing withdrawal from tech?  My smartphone is with me all the time and I’ve come to depend on it being there, even if I don’t use it.  Is this healthy?

That night we were back at the dealer’s shop.  One of the techies was trying to help us and because of the uber-security state in which we live, he had to text me a passcode to get into my wife’s phone (it’s my name on the joint account).  When his text didn’t come through he asked if he could see my device.  I handed him my iPhone 4S and he acted as if I’d just passed him a human-alien hybrid baby.  As if he’d never seen anything so antiquated.  In all seriousness he said, “You have to upgrade.  Soon this phone will no longer work.”  I have to wonder about the extortion of companies that sell you expensive devices then force you to upgrade when your salary doesn’t keep up with inflation.  My old phone does what I need it to do.  A new one will be capable of much more for which I won’t use it.  I work at home and I don’t give my cell number out to work colleagues.

There’s a psychological study in here.  I don’t want people who don’t know me personally calling my cell.  That’s what a landline is for.  Not only that, but my hours are unconventional.  Even people I know forget and send me texts after 8 p.m., waking me from a night’s sleep.  You see, the phone is always present, and those of us who don’t conform must pay the price.  The thought of being out of contact with others feels like solitary confinement.  Tech companies have given us tweeting presidents and bosses that can reach us at any hour.  And we happily comply.  I appreciate the welcome text or call from family or friend, but when it comes to work and other necessities, I still prefer to receive a letter.  Maybe I need to see a shrink.

Fly Away

Humans can be quite likable, but we have some nasty traits.  One is that we tend to think of ourselves as the only intelligent beings on the planet.  The funny thing about evolution is that it gave us both big brains and opposable thumbs—a winning combination to destroy the planet.  (Just look at Washington, DC and try to disagree.)  Jennifer Ackerman’s The Genius of Birds is poignant in this context.  Page after page of nearly unbelievable displays of intelligence among birds demonstrates that we are hardly alone on the smarts scale.  Birds make and use tools, have better memories than most of us do, and can solve problems that I even have trouble following.  We tend to take birds for granted because they seem to flit everywhere, but the book ends soberly by noting how global warming is driving many species to extinction.

Homo sapiens (I’ll leave out the questionable and redundant second sapiens) like to think we’ve got it all figured out.  We tend to forget that we too evolved for our environment—we adapt well, which has allowed us to change our environment and adapt to it (again, opposable thumbs).  Many scientists therefore conclude that we are the most intelligent beings in existence.  Ironically they make such assertions when it’s clear that other species can perceive things we can’t.  Ackerman’s chapter on migration states what we well know—migrating birds can sense the earth’s magnetic field, something beyond the ability of humans.  We lack the correct organ or bulb or lobe to pick up that signal.  And yet we think we can rule out other forms of intelligence when we don’t even know all the forms of possible sensory input.  We could learn a lot from looking at birds, including a little humility.

The Genius of Birds explores several different kinds of intelligence.  What becomes clear is that birds, like people, have minds.  Like human beings they come on a scale of intellectual ability that doesn’t suggest only one kind is necessary.  For our large brains we can’t seem to get it through our thick skulls that we need biodiversity.  We need other species to fill other niches and our own remarkable ability to thrive has only been because we are part of a tremendous, interconnected net encompassing all of life.  Other species have contributed to our evolution as we clearly do to theirs.  When we end up thinking that we alone are smart and our own prosperity alone matters we are sawing away at the branch on which we sit.  Further up the birds look at us and wonder if we really know what we’re doing.