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.
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 buckoodlesof 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?
For the next sixty seconds… (If you were born after Civil Defense aired these commercials, it’s your loss.) I’ve been reading about animal intelligence—there will be more on this anon. Today’s lesson is on artificial intelligence. For now let this be an illustration of how difficult it is to come down from an inspired weekend to the daily technology-enhanced drudgery we call day-to-day life. One of the real joys of seeing art in person is that no tech intervenes in the experience. It is naked exposure to another human being’s expression of her or himself. Over the weekend we wandered through five venues of intense creativity and then, back home, it was once more into the web. The ever-entangling internet of things.
I write, for better or for worse, on my laptop. My writing’s actually better on paper, but you need everything in electronic form for publication, so who has the time to write and retype, especially when work is ten hours of your day? Then a system update alert flashes in the upper right corner of my screen. “Okay,” I say setting the laptop aside, “go ahead and update.” But then the message that states I have to clear enough gigs for an update. I have been a little too creative and I’ve used my disc space for stuff I’ve made rather than Apple. This is a test. Okay, so I plug in my trusty terabyte drive to back things up before deleting them. But the laptop doesn’t recognize the drive. Oh, so it needs a reboot! (Don’t we all?) I give the command to restart. It can’t because some app refuses to quit beach-balling, as if it is the computer that’s doing the actual thinking. Force quit. “Are you sure?” the Mac cheekily asks. “You might lose unsaved changes.” I need a technological evangelist, I guess.
All of this takes time away from my precious few minutes of daily creativity. Restart, login, start copying files. Time for work! Just a mere sixty hours ago or less I was wandering through showcases of genuine human creation. Art pieces that make you stop and ponder, and not have to upgrade the software. Artists can talk to you and shake your hand. Explain what they’ve tried to express in human terms. Meanwhile my phone had died and was pouting while I charged it. I know Apple wants me to upgrade my hardware—their technological extortion is well known. Anyone who uses a computer experiences it. Buy a new one or I’ll waste your time. The choice is yours. This is a test. For the next sixty years…
Now, I don’t know how often you have to compile a bibliography, but it’s harder than it used to be.Some time ago—my hardware’s a bit aged, so I can’t remember exactly when—Apple products wouldn’t run Microsoft software.In one of those turf wars that occasionally break out among those who vie for technical control of the world, the two companies divorced for a period.As a result, when I open Word files on my Mac, they become “Pages” documents.That’s fine; since I use a variety of word processors I can usually figure them out fairly readily.One thing, however, that both Word and Pages do is to assume they know what you’re trying to do.Software engineers control “smart options” so that when, for example, you’re working on a numbered list (or lettered list) it automatically goes to the next number or letter, formatting happily as it goes.
I have an article coming out in a collection of essays and I had to put a bibliography together.One of the books was, unfortunately, written by an author who styled himself with an initial for his first name.Since that initial was “A.” I had great difficulty convincing Pages (as I would have Word) that I was not trying to start a lettered list.I was trying to build a bibliography.No matter what I did—copy and paste, retype, hit “delete” til my fingers bled—it simply would not change this A. from a numbered list (just as it likes to capitalize the word that comes after a period automatically) to regular text.I finally had to retype the whole entry, careful not to put the first initial first, so that Pages wouldn’t reform everything with no option to shut that feature off. I later snuck in while Pages was dozing and added the A.
Early on, I admit, the footnote function in Word saved premature graying.Having typed—literally typed—many a college paper only to find that I’d misjudged the spacing required for footnotes and having to retype the entire page, I appreciated this auto-function.It was great to have an option where an algorithm could figure out all the spacing for you, and all you had to do was enter data.Now, however, word processors think in terms of the lowest common denominator.If you begin with “A.” you naturally will be progressing to “B.”Apparently there is no other reason that a sentient being would begin with “A.” And of course bibliography begins with “B.”
A few years ago my wife bought me a smart phone. Being lifelong Mac users, the iPhone was the model of choice. I don’t have the intense connectivity issues of the young, I guess, so I don’t use it for texting or surfing the net. It’s great for holding bus tickets, though, and navigating in unfamiliar places. I’ve grown quite used to the convenience of having the internet in my pocket. Such a smart device. Naturally, one smart device in a family will breed others. We all have iPhones now. Like most Apple products they’re hermetically sealed and have few moving parts. The user need not know what goes on inside. It’s the very definition of a black box.
Then my wife’s phone went rogue. Suddenly it stopped picking up 3G signals (these are older models, after all). Now, you can’t just open up a black box and look inside. Even if you could I’d have no idea what I would be looking at. So I called tech support. My wife keeps music and photos on her phone, so we didn’t want to lose anything. Little did I realize that I’d just committed two-and-a-half hours of my life to phone repair. Before I was done, I would come to know six discrete people at differing levels of intimacy as we worked together to figure out what might make a black box tick. I spoke to Apple support and our service carrier. They put us back through to Apple support, and they had to call us back because the process was a lengthy one. In the end, it worked. The phone was restored to its former glory, but I had lost one of the very brief evenings I have.
One of the typical sci-fi, or apocalyptic, scenarios is the person or civilization that builds something s/he it can’t control. Like a biblical plague, we’ve unleashed a technology that makes our lives oh so much easier but ever so much more complicated. In addition to our professional expertise, we all need to understand, to some degree, technology. Technology and deity have begun to share blurred lines. It’s as if many believe it will save us. At the end of the day, however, we have to assert that it is here to serve us. We are the gods and technology represents the lowly beings we’ve created to do our bidding. Then again, those who read ancient stories know what happens when the gods create a servant race. I’m lucky that all it cost me was two-and-a-half hours, and not some even greater sacrifice.
I think Steve Bannon has already taken over my computer. How else can I explain everything stopping in the middle of a word, fingers flying, building up to some rhetorical flourish and suddenly the screen goes blank. Windows that I’d forgotten I had open reappear only to shut down. A brief message appears telling me that an “update” is being installed. I don’t mind do I? After all, it’s the middle of the night. Who’s watching in the middle of the night? We all know who the real president is, but why he’s interested in my muddled musings is anybody’s guess.
You see, I live a regimented life. You have to when your bus arrives before 6 a.m. I crawl reluctantly from my bed at 3:30 for one purpose only—to write. The commute and work take about 14 hours of the 24 I’m allotted every day, and I’m told that 8 of the remaining should be for sleeping. That doesn’t leave much time. So I skimp on the dozing part and get up to scribble my thoughts when, traditionally, demons are a-prowl. I need my computer to be with me on this. Kind of difficult to post on a blog without it. Not that I enjoy my early morning violence to the soft fabric of dreamland. My fellow early morning commuters know what I mean. Every day there’s a car just pulling up to some bus stop as the driver’s put on his blinkers, indicating he’s pulling out. I know some folks roll out of the bed, into the shower, and onto the bus. Some continue their sleep on the bus. I can’t blame them. I’m Manichaean about my day. It’s either asleep or awake. I don’t nap, so I need to write when I’m most awake. Just after 3:30 a.m.
How do I know it’s Steve Bannon? It’s only a guess really. I’ve heard that Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates keep a piece of opaque tape over the camera of their laptops. Why anybody’d want to see a confused, morning-headed, middle-aged guy with his mouth hanging open, wondering what’s just happened to the blog post he was writing is beyond me. But then I’m no expert in national security. In this year of 1984 we’re all threats to the powers that be, I guess. Thing is, I can’t remember what I wanted to say once the laptop restarts half an hour later. And that’s probably the point.
How terribly rude. I was right in the middle of a sentence when my word processor shut down. Then my computer. A system update. It’s 4:00 a.m., the time I usually upload my blog post. You have to understand that I get up at 3:30 so that I have time to write. My laptop assumes nobody is working “in the middle of the night.” I would’ve thought my fingers on its keys would’ve given it a clue. Now it tells me I’ll have access, new upgraded system installed, in 25 minutes. Doesn’t my laptop have all my personal details when it comes to shopping? You’d think it would know all my personal habits by now. I mean, this is the way I do it every day. Right now my concerns are secondary. This system update can’t wait. I wasn’t even given a choice. Power nap for Apple.
What disturbs me most is that my computer reads every word I type, yet it still thinks I’m just like everybody else. Who’s awake and writing at 4:00 a.m.? And I thought we had a rapport, my laptop and me. I was the Skipper to his Little Buddy. The Agent 86 to her 99. The Will Robinson to its Robot. I guess I had it backwards all the time. The brain on my lap doesn’t agree with the brain in my head. If I can’t get my writing done now, it won’t get done at all because at ten minutes to six I’ve got to be on that bus. New Jersey Transit doesn’t offer working overhead lights much of the time, let alone wifi. It’s now or never. My coffee’s already gone and the next thing on my daily agenda is the shower. I always come up with ideas in the shower—I need my Little Buddy waiting for me when I rush out to write them down.
Who’s sitting on whose lap? How could I have gotten something so very basic so terribly wrong? In ancient times the one sitting was superior to the one standing. When the computer’s sitting on the one sitting we know who’s really in charge. Let the one with eyes to read understand. I’m a busy man, but my Little Buddy—my Skipper—is busier. When’s the last time I read a paper map? Opened a phone book? Wrote an actual letter? I can hear those bus wheels rumbling. Excuse me, but my master is calling.