The Joy of Techs

Those of us with Luddite tendencies prefer to hide them.  Tech is the ultimate good, right?  You’ve got a smart phone in your pocket or purse and it contains the entire internet and what more could anyone possibly want?  Besides an upgrade, that is.  I recently misplaced part of the charger for my old iPhone 4S.  Yes, a phone that old can still work, no matter what they tell you!  I went to the store to replace said part only to find that you had to purchase an upgraded replacement that costs twice as much as the old part did.  Why?  It had a new type of USB port, in addition to a “traditional” USB.  Pardon my ignorance, but I thought the U stood for “Universal.”  Now even vocabulary has to change to meet the demands of tech?  Whoever the tech god is, s/he is extremely mercurial.

So I was in a meeting the other day.  A guy older than me was talking about the future of tech.  It occurred to me that guys my age (who didn’t get to take early retirement) are trying to act like those half our age, as if we really understand technology.  Growing up with something is the only way, it seems, to adapt to it in any kind of naturalized way.  There are kids today, if the internet’s to be believed, who don’t understand that you had to lift the receiver on an old-style telephone before dialing.  And if that dial is rotary, well, let’s just say the pizza’s not going to be delivered anytime soon.  Those who grew up with the internet and smart phones have a native understanding that people my age lack.  I still write ideas down on paper.  I prefer DVDs and CDs to streaming.  And I believe books should be made of paper.

Changes in the tech world vindicate me.  I heard that iTunes is going to be retired.  This is after I’ve spent plenty of money downloading songs that I could’ve bought on DVD and have in “hard copy.”  Indeed, friends are telling me to back up my MP3 files on some kind of storage device before iTunes goes the way of UltraViolet.  And we’re supposed to trust tech.  I’ve lost ebooks by switching devices.  Some of my tunes have been licensed away because I downloaded them on an older computer.  What’s one to do?  Buy them again.  In a new format.  On a platform that will eventually be retired so you’ll need to repeat the purchase a third time.  Or you can buy it once in paper or plastic and have it for good.  Now there’s a radical idea.  If only I had something to write it down on.

In the Inn

One of those things that really bothers me is the concept of being forced out of a home.  It’s never happened to me personally, but that doesn’t mean I can’t fear it.  That idea works its way into more theoretical applications as well.  Lately both my phone and my laptop computer have sent me messages saying there’s no more room in the inn.  Now, dear reader, you may understand technology better than I (you almost certainly do), but I wonder just how much these weightless thoughts I store here can possibly tip the scale.  I back up my hard disc weekly—there’s no telling who’s going to get kicked out when all the room is finally gone!—but when I open my space manager I find all kinds of things I can’t identify.  Software that I’m not sure it’s safe to remove.  I have no idea what the function of many apps might be.  So I just start deleting.

No room for your data here!

And I keep deleting.  I won’t touch my writing, however.  It’s backed up on a high-capacity drive, but such drives fail.  I want to keep a copy here on my laptop where I can reach it.  The real problem is that this massive sorting exercise keeps me from doing the things that I’d rather spend my time on—writing blog posts, for example.  How can I relax to do that, though, knowing that there’s no room to store them when I’m done?  Why does iTunes take up so much space anyway?  I feel guilty deleting anything from it because of all those warning dialogue boxes with their dire notes that this action can’t be undone.  Occam’s erasure has its consequences, I guess.

I suppose this is related to my recent observations on how tech demands time.  I’ve got some big projects going.  One is to sort out and file all my browser bookmarks.  They are embarrassingly plentiful.  Then there’s the sorting of thousands and thousands of electronic photos into files.  When I first starting using devices there weren’t enough pictures or bookmarks to worry about.  Now each of these projects has been ongoing for months and neither is nearing the end.  I’m old enough to recall when office supply stores sent catalogues (print catalogues, no less!) to my employers stating things like, “We’re in the  midst of an information explosion.  You should buy folders in bulk.”  They meant manilla folders.  Were we ever so naive?  Now what about these ebooks that I also have in hard copy?  Which should I get rid of?  That choice, at least, is easy.  Even my manger has room for books.

At the Crossroads

flood_album_cover

Back before there was iTunes—before Napster was even a thing—I heard a song on the radio. It was by a relatively new band, They Might Be Giants. We lived in Illinois at the time and I was being paid so poorly that we couldn’t afford luxuries like CDs. When I called the local radio station to ask them to play the song (“Birdhouse in Your Soul”) they apologized—they didn’t have the album. “We really should,” the receptionist told me. Although I was only earning a part-time salary—the fate of many a doctorate holder—and my wife was still in school, we eventually bought Flood. It quickly became one of our favorites. One of the songs that immediately struck us both was “Your Racist Friend.” It’s been going through my head lately, for some reason. “I know politics bore you, but I feel like a hypocrite talking to you and your racist friend,” the duo sings. I could quote the entire song, but let me highlight one of my favorite lines: “Can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding.”

I’ve been reading online that some people are saying, “Just get over it. You lost. Deal with it.” Auf Deutsch, “Komm damit klar.” After so many rounds of Kübler-Ross that Elisabeth is getting dizzy in her grave, I’ve begun to realize something. This was no ordinary loss. I’ve been alive long enough to be disappointed with election results several times. The psychological trauma from Tuesday rates somewhere between 9/11 and the Challenger explosion. To put this is perspective, when Reagan won I was depressed for a while, about as much as when the Steelers lost Super Bowl XL, and I’m not a sports fan. I’ve never spent the hours after an election glancing at the faces of others to see if they looked as damaged as I felt. “Just get over it” people?—it’s called shock. “Can’t shake the devil’s hand and say you’re only kidding.”

This was no ordinary election. Yes, I was born in the Kennedy administration. I was too young to understand Camelot, but I’m now old enough to read the writing on the wall. I saw our nation put a man on the moon. I felt the unending frustration of Vietnam. I watched Nixon resign after Watergate. God help us, I even survived two terms of W. I’ve never felt that we were bargaining our soul before. I was at the crossroads at midnight. I know what I saw. Can a man who has openly treated women as objects, insulted people for their race, and advocated thug violence to win lead a unified country? I don’t know. “If anything was broken I’m sure it could be mended,” the song says. Let’s hope so, but let me contemplate the ghost of democracy past. It’s my right.

Music Alone

Thinking back to our days in Edinburgh, I had a song come to mind. I could remember only a word or two, but the tune and the cadence were still there. Not a singer, nor even a hummer, the best I could do was ask my wife if she remembered the song based on the two words I could recall. Amazingly, she did. When I went to download it on iTunes, I learned that it isn’t available in the US. Probably copyright laws—these can be quite bizarre. Music has a way of staying with you and one of the songs unforgettable to those of us growing up in the ‘60s is Don McLean’s “American Pie.” In a recent Bloomberg View piece, Stephen L. Carter, a professor at Yale, laments the fact that McLean’s original notes for the song are going up for bids and, after five decades of guessing, we may finally learn what the cryptic lyrics mean. Or will we?

AmericanPie

A colleague of mine used to say, “words don’t have meanings, they have usages.” In the literary technique known as reader-response criticism, it is the reader who has the final say in what a passage “means.” An author may intend one thing, but who is the author to control the meme once it’s out? (You can see why some biblical students get upset by such things since the same thing applies, even if the author is God.) While I’m not po-mo enough to accept this completely, it has introduced an edge of caution to my reading. After all, if an author is dead (ahem) we can’t question him or her to find out what they meant. Even if they remember. “American Pie” is notable for its lyrics with religious imagery which, fairly clearly, are not really religious. Or are they?

Carter laments the coming unveiling. The mystery will be gone. Don McLean, the ultimate one-hit wonder, will walk away with the goods yet again. I have no doubt that there will be analyses and hermeneutical disquisitions. The learned will claim that we finally have the answers. I’m not so sure. What if the “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost” turn out to be Buddy Holly, Big Bopper, and Richie Valens? What does that mean? Perhaps Don McLean, like any old prophet, was merely a vehicle for a message received from elsewhere. The questions go back in an endless regression, and no answer will ever be final. We all know the song is about “the day the music died.” As the old camp song says, “music alone shall live, never to die.” And as I sit here trying to remember how a song I last heard two decades ago goes, I’m pretty sure that the camp song is right, whatever it means.