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.

The Consequences of Being Smart

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.

Used Against You

Many times I’ve confessed to being a reluctant Luddite. My reluctance arises from a deep ambivalence about technology—not that I don’t like it, but rather that I’m afraid of its all-encompassing nature. This week’s Time magazine ran a story on how smartphones are changing the world. My job, meeting the goals set for me, would be impossible without the instant communication offered by the Internet. Everything is so much faster. Except my processing speed. We all know the joke (which would be funny if it weren’t so true) that if you’re having trouble with technology, ask a child. In my travels I see kids barely old enough to walk toddling around with iPhones, clumsily bumping into things (i.e., human beings) as they stare at the electronic world in the palm of their tiny hands. And once the technocrats have taken over, “progress” is non-negotiable.

I made it through my Master’s degree without ever seriously using a computer. Even now I think of this very expensive lap-warmer before me as a glorified word processor. Over the weekend I succumbed to the constant lure of Mac’s new OS, Mountain Lion. Some features of this blog had stopped working, and, being a Luddite, I assumed that it was outdated software. Of course, to update software, you need an operating system that can handle it. So here I am riding on a mountain lion’s back, forgetting to duck as the beast leaps dramatically into its lair. In this dark cave, nursing my aching head, I realize that I have become a slave to technology. For a student of religion who grew up without computers, I’ve got at least half-a-dozen obsolete ones in my apartment, each with bits and fragments I’m afraid to lose, despite the fact that I’m not even sure where to take them to retrieve the data. When I sat down to write my post this morning I received a message that Microsoft Word is no longer supported by Mountain Lion. Fortunately my daughter had the foresight to purchase Pages, so life goes on.

This blog has an index. It is an archaism. Indexes are not necessary with complete searchability. It is there mostly for me. In my feeble attempts at cleverness, I sometimes forget what a post is about, based on its title. The index helps me. In a truly Stephen King moment, I found this morning that my index had infinitely replicated a link to my post on the movie Carrie, so that any link after that will lead you directly to the protagonist of Stephen King’s first novel. It will take a few days to clean that up. There’s probably an app for it. For those of us brought up before household computers were a reality, however, there is a more religious explanation. Yes, my laptop is clearly haunted. And in the spirit of Stephen King I type these words while awaiting the top to snap down with the force of an alligator byte and break off my fingers. I should be worried about it, but instead, I’m sure there’s an app to take the place of missing digits. Even if there isn’t I’m sure my iPhone will happily survive without the constant interference of a Luddite just trying to call home.

Not a lap-pet.

Spare Change

The vernal equinox snuck up on me this year, and I learned that it can also be what those in medieval Europe used to call a “dismal day.” The sun was out and the temperature was unseasonably warm, but beginning with breakfast and all the way until bed-time, things just didn’t go according to plan. My mother had been admitted to the hospital, and I live some 600 miles away. When I called to see how she was doing, I spoke with a bureaucratic nurse who could neither “confirm or deny” that she was even there. I wasn’t aware that my mother had connections with the military, government, or covert operations. When I said I was just looking for my mother I got read the riot act including—this is the truth—having the Hippocratic Oath cited at me. I think, in all honesty, it might be spelled Hypocritic. Don’t get me wrong—I think it is important to protect people’s rights, and I sure the duty sergeant—excuse me, nurse, was only worried about lawyers and lawsuits. We have constructed a country so insidious that a boy can’t talk to his own mother. Eventually she put my call through to the patient’s ward where one of the patients answered the phone and went to find my mother for me. We call it civilization.

I’m not the most technical of guys. Think about it—I majored in very dead languages. When my wife surprised me with an iPhone for Christmas, my brother-in-law kindly agreed to get in on the surprise and took care of the details. We went into the Verizon store after the holiday and switched the phone (with the phone number I’ve had for years) into my name. Nearly four months later, when I tried to change some plan details, both he and I had to call Verizon several times to get the mess straightened out. One of the communications giants seems to have made itself so technical that it can no longer understand a simple request. When the Verizon representative asked if I understood the user agreement I said yes. Have you ever read one? No one without a law degree could possibly understand. Even Moses didn’t have a cell phone. I had to spend an entire evening getting my own phone back under my own name. Our society has taken what should have been a two-minute phone-call and made a mini-series of it.

So, is it because the vernal equinox is so early this year that my world went haywire for a day? We live in a society where it is nearly impossible to prove you are who you say you are. And children are not allowed to speak to their own mother. Lawyers have taken the law meant to shield us and made a bludgeon of it. Communications experts obfuscate. It may seem random, but these two phenomena have the very same evil as their root. They are twin trunks springing from greed. The nurse can’t put me through because a lawyer may sue. My phone number can be reassigned to my name, with added costs, approved by lawyers that only corporate giants can afford. Human need has been reduced to terms of cash. The trees are budding. The air is warmer. Flowers are in bloom. But it certainly doesn’t feel like spring to me. That chill you feel is cold, hard cash. We are all just spare change.

The weight of a human soul, legally.

Wired for God

I am not now, nor have I ever been, a techie. When my fascination with the newest technological marvel borders on the rhapsodic, I suddenly realize it’s all electrons and immediately the fascination dissipates. It feels like an illusion. I am a guy who likes the sensation of a paper book in his hands and prefers conversation accompanied by all the subtle biological clues of being in the same room with somebody. Maybe it is lack of imagination on my part, but I will often get bored on the Internet and pick up a book instead. One book I recently picked up, and one that challenged my perception of reality, was Rachel Wagner’s Godwired: Religion, Ritual and Virtual Reality (Routledge, 2011). Wagner is one of that generation of younger scholars who is asking what the implications of electronic culture are for religion. If concepts such as online prayer walls, chat-bot salvation, and storing sacred texts on the same device as secular ones intrigue you, do yourself a favor and read this book.

As Wagner ably points out, religious individuals are tapping into the vast communications’ potential of the Internet to spread their faith abroad. There are apps to help you pray online, there are electronic games to prepare you for the fictitious rapture, and there are virtual churches. We have indeed sealed God in an Xbox, and we have beamed the divine across wireless networks and learned to confess our sins in cyberspace. And physicists are starting to confirm that, at our most basic level, we are energy rather than matter after all. Maybe we are tapping into ultimate reality here. Wagner explores how the level of engagement with virtual worlds constructed by software engineers (the new gods) becomes so intense as to provide an alternate reality. It all depends on how you define what is real. And it is clear that for many people, life without the Internet is now unimaginable. Those of us born before the supercomputer scratch our physical heads with amazement. How did Nebuchadrezzar or Alexander ever conquer the known world without GPS technology? Does my iPhone have a secret life about which I know nothing?

Within our culture live many older people who have never touched a computer. They exist alongside grandchildren practically born with some iDevice in their grasp (may be a choking hazard for children under three). I have lived long enough already to have witnessed keyboarding being replaced by thumbing, and research having shifted from long treks to the library in the snow to a few taps on a glass screen that can feel the electricity from my chilly fingers. From the comfort of my lonely room sings my soul, how great thou art! Perhaps Terminator didn’t go far enough, perhaps Skynet really is god. Maybe this matrix of blood, muscle, bone, fat, and spit is really just an illusion and the Internet is true revelation. Wagner pries open some very important questions in her book. And none of us should be surprised if, when we approach the pearly gates, we find a touchpad next to the electronic lock inscribed with this legend: “Welcome to Heaven. Please enter username and password. Type in the letters you see in the box below.”

Church of Siliconism

Some of us have been dragged into the electronic age kicking and screaming. Our apartment at home is full of books, and they are made of paper, not plastic. In college, some of my friends and I vowed we would never use computers—harbingers of a cold, new age. It was a vow I kept until working on my doctorate (pretty much). Despite keeping this blog, I really have very little native intelligence about the world of circuit-board, integrated circuit, and chip. I would probably be the last person to have thought to ask for an iPhone—I frequently forget to take my cell phone with me, and when I do, I sometimes neglect to turn it on. So I was stunned to find an iPhone with my name on it yesterday. I looked at it like an alien baby, wondering what it might eat. As the day wore on, however, I started to see some of what it might offer.

Siri, the software personal assistant for iOS, responds in a friendly voice to questions asked. “She” (and you can’t help personifying her) is like a personal portal to the mind of the Internet. You want a pizza? Siri knows the location of all the places in your neighborhood that deliver. You wonder what the most recent nation in the world is? Siri will look that up for you. (South Sudan, as of yesterday, according to her sources.) My brother-in-law, intrepid with electronics, and knowing my background, asked Siri about God. She replied, “Humans believe in spiritualism. I believe in siliconism.” Someone at Apple clearly has a sense of humor, but the more I began to parse this statement, the more I realized Siri could use a personal assistant in the religion field.

Spiritualism is not the same as spirituality; the former is the belief in ghosts and the religions that accompany that belief, such as Theosophy. Clearly in an American market, any product that denied belief in God, even by implication, would become the product of a witchhunt. The sad image of heaps of iPhones being melted as leering evangelicals look on is disturbing but unfortunately easy to conjure. Best to program Siri to deflect any potential ire with humor. The second component of her pithy reply is siliconism. As a religion, it is clearly underway all ready. Who reading this blog can imagine life without electronic media? Be honest! What does a computer believe? Do androids dream of electric sheep? Does Siri say her prayers as she’s being shut down for the night? What does it mean to believe? So now I have an iPhone. The day before yesterday I couldn’t find my app with both hands. Now I have a personal religion consultant. I suspect I’ll be starting a new religion by the end of the day—the First Church of Christ, Programmer. Its headquarters will be wherever a true believer is located at the moment, as long as s/he has an iPhone. Blackberry users will, of course, be considered heretics.

iPriest

I don’t own an iPad or an iPhone. I even have to confess to being bored with the internet on occasion. Perhaps my interests are too antiquated for the electronic age. So when I saw that an Italian priest had developed an application to allow priests to celebrate Mass I knew that the brave, new world had attained a heretofore unfathomable high. Instead of laying a missal on the altar, priests can now “double click” to the appropriate rubric with an iPad next to the body and blood of Jesus Christ.

Of course, the temptation to surf the net during Mass must be overwhelming at times. When I look out over my university classes and see a sea of laptops, knowing that university wi-fi is everywhere, I am sure they are somewhere far, far away from Numbers or 2 Chronicles. Perhaps they are checking out what is going on in Mass? A couple years back iBreviary came out for those who need the daily offices on the fly. Convenience and worship, however, were never intended to go together.

I spent this morning in a used bookstore. Some of my favorite places are among old books. The knowledge they hold doesn’t freeze up on you or crash. And often it is easier to find since you don’t have to search for exact terms in an ocean of information so vast that even intellectual whales couldn’t navigate it. Upgrades on iMass are expected to be available soon. The content, however, will remain the same as that rolling off the press in hardcopy after Vatican II. How long will it be before virtual communion is available so that commuters can partake without ever taking their hands off the wheel?

In the name of the unix, linux, and holy mac