Aging Tech

When I get an idea my first impulse is to grab an envelope and pencil and start scribbling.  I run around with an older crowd.  Many of my generation don’t appreciate how much a single “share” can do for a blog post, or what a simple link to a page can do.  I have college friends who have no email addresses and who are invisible on the web.  I guess this is a young person’s playing field.  I suppose one of my reasons for writing about horror is that it keeps me in the younger demographic.  I don’t know too many people my age who are fans of “the genre.”  Sci fi is a little more acceptable, I suppose.  Still, I’ve been thinking quite a bit about why I find horror so fascinating.  There’s actually something redemptive about it, at least in my reading of the material.  It’s also a coping mechanism.

One reason that people tell stories (and read stories), according to psychologists, is to learn how to handle situations they might encounter.  This is on a subconscious level most of the time, otherwise speculative fiction simply wouldn’t apply.  I can’t recall having been in a crisis situation and stopping to think what a Stephen King character would have done in such circumstances, but I suppose that might be in the back of my mind somewhere, along with information about all the things I’ve mislaid over the years.  The older you get, in a technologically rapacious society, the more things there seem to be worthy of horror stories.  I haven’t even figured out the last round of devices before the new generation’s introduced.  No wonder so much of horror has to do with being attacked by monsters that look innocent.  Clinically engineered in a clean room.

Image credit: Pattymooney, via Wikimedia Commons

Some of the horror comes from the inherent instability of a constantly upgrading tech.  My laptop’s a few years old.  While a little younger than that, the device that sits on my laptop is also not fresh from the factory.  The last time I tried to back up the contents, the external hard drive (new from the factory) refused to do what I commanded.  While I did eventually figure it out, I wasted a good deal of my scarce free time working out how a device I couldn’t control was in fact controlling me.  Younger folks grew up with this kind of problem solving drilled into them from kindergarten on.  Now I find myself in a world of devices I can’t comprehend and which don’t even react the same way they did last time I bought the exact same one.  I ask my fellow quinquagenarians what to do and I watch as they grab an envelope and pencil.

The Reboot

It lied to me.  My computer.  Don’t get me wrong; I know all about trying to save face.  I also know my laptop pretty well by now.  It was running slow, taking lots of time to think over fairly simple requests.  A lull in my frantic mental activity led to the opportunity for me to initiate a reboot.  When it winked open its electronic eye my screen told me it had restarted to install an update.  Untrue.  I had told it to restart.  I gave the shutdown order to help with the obvious sluggishness that suggested to this Luddite brain of mine that my silicon friend was working on an update.  There’s no arguing with it, however.  In its mechanical mind, it decide to do the restart itself.  I was merely a bystander.

Technology and I argue often.  Like JC says, though, authority always wins.  I should know my place by now.  I’ve read enough about neuroscience (with thanks to those who write for a general audience) to know that this is incredibly human behavior.  We are creatures of story, and if our brains can’t figure out why we’ve done something they will make up an answer.  We have trouble believing that we just don’t know.  I suppose that will always be a difference between artificial intelligence and the real thing.  Our way of thinking is often pseudo-rational.  We evolved to get by but machines have been designed intelligently.  That often makes me wonder about the “intelligent design” crowd—they admit evolution, but with God driving it.  Why’d our brains, in such circumstances, evolve the capacity for story instead of for fact?

As my regular readers know, I enjoy fiction.  Fiction is the epitome of the story-crafting art.  Some analysts suggest our entire mental process involves construing the story of ourselves.  Those who articulate it well are rewarded with the sobriquet of “author.”  The rest of us, however, aren’t exactly amateurs either.  Our brains are making up reasons for what we do, even when we do irrational things (perhaps like reading this blog sometimes).  Stories give our lives a sense of continuity, of history.  What originally developed as a way of remembering important facts—good food sources, places to avoid because predators lurk there—became histories.  Stories.  And when the facts don’t align, we interpolate.  It seems that my laptop was doing the same thing.  Perhaps it’s time to reboot.

Goliath and Company

First UltraViolet.  Then Google +.  Well, actually neither of these was first—tech initiatives cease to exist all the time.  Giants aren’t immune to extinction, it seems.  I’ve got to be careful with my confessions toward Luddite sympathies since, as it turns out, tech is king.  Emperor, in fact.  But since tech only works as long as society holds together, I still want paper knowledge in my library.  I don’t own a Kindle and despite what visitors say, I don’t want to “save room” by getting rid of books.  I like books.  I wink at them from across the room.  Sidle up to them when in private.  Get to know them intimately.  Books are a way of life.  If the grid breaks down, I’ll have books to read and candles to do it by.  For a while there I even made my own candles, although most of those were used up in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Just sayin’

You see, my hairs bristle when I hear tech experts complain that “authors should be taught to write in XML.”  Said techies have apparently never written a book.  Ideas, you see, flow.  When you’re in the zone, there’s no stopping to mark-up your text.  In fact, the best, purest kind comes in scribbles on paper with misspelled words and all.  You can hold it in your hands and remember the Muse who had you at the time.  For me the hours of inspiration are before dawn.  I mostly use a computer now, but I can still find myself typing too slow to keep up with manic inspiration, desperate to record my ideas before paid work starts.  Work is the Medea of creativity—both mother and slayer.  Once I login I check out.  I need to wait for another day to dawn.

We’ve invested heavily in technology.  The internet is largely responsible for the globalization against which the world has recently rebelled.  No matter how many times people like me say we love books somebody will say, “Have you considered a Kindle?”  Why?  I bought a house as a place to keep my books.  These little bricks are bits of my mind.  Pieces of my soul!  What we read makes us who we are.  The last person who said the remark about authors learning XML literally sighed with disgust as he said it.  How could, you could feel him thinking, anyone be so backward as to think this is a problem?  I recall Hurricane Sandy.  Sitting in an apartment lit by candles we’d made ourselves, we read old-fashioned books and were eerily content.

Free Cookie

So, it started out as a freebee.  The way I looked at it, I paid enough for my computer to justify some free software.  We had Quicken on our desktop for years before we started to use it.  Then came the notice that it would no longer work on our system (which upgrades apparently every nano-second).  If we didn’t want to lose our financial data we would, the note cheerily said, have to upgrade.  You have to buy what once was in the land of the free.  We consulted about it—I still have an objection to paying for something made strictly of electrons; when I pull the blanket off the bed this time of year I get a healthy jolt of electrons without having to pay for them.  We caved.  Then the notice came again.  Upgrade time!  Only you can’t buy Quicken, you can rent it.  The one-time fee for buying software is now an annual fee.  Isn’t everyone happier now?

I don’t mean to pick on Quicken, although that is the most insidious offender since you can’t very easily transfer all that data back to paper.  Services withdrawn.  Welcome to the internet of thieves.  Bakeries worldwide know that a free cookie leads to sales often enough that it’s worth the small loss in profits.  But electrons are free all the time.  Shuffle your feet across the carpet in you stocking feet and test it.  Amazon for a while sent the Washington Post headlines daily, for free.  Now, Amazon ought to know me by name since I’m a book addict.  Then, just at the midterm elections, they announced this freebee was over.  I don’t know what in the world has been happening since.  I do hope someone will tell me when our currency converts to rubles.

Who wants a cookie?

Humans are susceptible to the myth of permanence.  Although change is constant and time never ceases to flow, we tend to think things will stay where we put them.  Technological change, however, has become so swift that we now pay for the privilege.  Unlike that cookie which lasts a moment and the choice of buying more is up to you, the internet has swept up our lives and you can no longer opt out.  We pay our bills online because letter carriers drop things.  We communicate online because who has the time to pick up and dial an actual landline phone?  The fact that the signal cuts out now and again isn’t a problem, even when we lose valuable information.  It’s only electrons, after all.

Creatio Nihilo

Just when I think I’ve reconciled myself with technology, this goes and happens.  These precise words, in this order, have been written before.  In fact, all words in the English language have already been laid out in every conceivable order.  Technology can be friend or foe, it seems.  The website Library of Babel—with its biblical name—has undertaken the task of writing every conceivable combination of letters (using our standard English alphabet) and putting them into a vast, if only electronic, library.  This was not done by a human being like me, with intent or even any interest in the meaning of the words, but rather as one of those things people do simply because they can.  This entire paragraph can be copied and pasted into their search box and found.

The Library of Babel has made plagiarists of us all, even as it plagiarized everything written before it was programed.  After I learned about this library the wind avoided my sails for a while.  You see, what’t the point in writing what’s already been written?  Then it occurred to me.  Context.  The fact is, had I not scriven these very words, and put them on this blog, they would never have come to the attention of the kinds of people who read what I write.  The words have been spelled out before, but they’ve never been written before.   Those of us who write know the difference.  We spend hours and hours reading and thinking of ways to combine words.  We’re not out to kill the creativity of our species, we simply want to participate.

There should be limits to human knowledge, otherwise we’d have nothing for which to strive.  The internet may make it seem that all knowledge has been found—it is so vast and so terribly diverse—and yet there are people who never use a computer.  Their wisdom counts too.  It may seem that everything is here, but there is material that still has to be looked up in physical books.  There are crates and crates of clay tablets from antiquity that have never been transcribed and translated.  When that finally happens, the words they contain may be found, in a strangely prophetic way, in the Library of Babel.  But they won’t have any meaning there until it is given by the context.  And what can a library preserve if it isn’t the context that a (human) writer has given the words?

Just the Fax

Like most people I have a cell phone.  If I use it to take a picture, I can send that photo any number of places with a tap, swipe, and tap.  It works that way with scanned documents as well.  Using a hand-held phone, I can scan important papers, convert them to PDFs, and send them via email, text, “AirDrop” (whatever that is), Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—you name it.  Except fax.  That I cannot do.  The other day a company wanted me to send them a document by fax.  Within seconds I had scanned it with my phone and was ready to send it, but instead experienced electronic constipation.  The company had no email; it had to come by fax.

Now, like most reasonably modern people, we have no fax machine at home.  We still have some in the office in New York, but they are clunky, noisy, and seldom actually work.  The technology to receive documents has improved beyond the photostatic smear that facsimiles represent.  I worked for a company where the warehouse insisted on orders by fax.  You’d fax them the order and wait for the phone to ring.  They couldn’t read the fax and you had to tell them what it said.  Well, this particular company I was dealing with wanted a fax.  I downloaded two or three “free” fax apps.  They suspiciously wanted my credit card info.  Besides, if you send more than one page they wanted at least ten bucks for a “package” deal.  I had to send a three-page document.  I checked to see if my laptop could do it.  The manufacturer’s website said it could, but the menu option it told me about didn’t appear.  Who insists on faxes any more?

This is the dilemma of mixed technologies.  It’s like those movies where the streets of some exotic city are filled with rickshaws, cars, bicycles, and pedestrians.  The fax, in this analogy, is the pedestrian.  My mother doesn’t have email, let alone the capability to text (or fax).  Ours is a telephone relationship.  Yet in my hand I hold a device that can send this document anywhere in the world with a tap, swipe, and tap.  I recall my first trip to Jerusalem where hand-drawn carts, cars, and yes, camels, shared the streets.  This was in the days before the internet.  To contact home even by telephone was cumbersome and costly.  Yet somehow we survived.  I’d arranged the trip utilizing a travel agency and funded it by a letter-writing campaign.  The Ektachrome slides I took are now a pain to look at because technology has so improved our lives.  Unless, of course, you need to send a fax.  Delivery by camel can at least be arranged via the internet.

Wired for Good

I spend entirely too much time untangling wires. Recently I read a survey asking whether you’d rather face a robot uprising or a zombie apocalypse. There’s no question that the devices have already taken over. And they’re eager for your source of power. The work laptop, the home computer, the aging iPhone, the iPad—they all want feeding, like a nest of hungry chicks. And their cords get tangled. It’s up to the human servant to come along and try to introduce some order into this chaos. Then there are the devices that go the way of the iMac, and yet their cords somehow remain. We have boxes of cords that look like an octopus orgy—uncertain to what device they once belonged we’re afraid to send them to the recycling plant because you may have accidentally rid yourself of one you still need. If there was a robot uprising, they’d be tripping over their own umbilical cords.

We used to go camping. Completely unplugged. These days of state parks offering wifi, even a trip to the wilderness isn’t really wireless. I’m a little afraid of this new dependency. The joy of memorizing has been replaced with the internet in my pocket. Life has become much easier in some respects, no doubt, but it’s not a one way street. Technology has its price, as this tangle of cords I’m facing reminds me. There’s no cutting this gordian knot without going back to the Stone Age, it seems. What would I do if I couldn’t post on this blog daily? What would remain of me?

If electricians are the acolytes to this new religion, then programmers are the priests. Each keystroke produces a recognizable letter because of their prayers and supplications to the great god Internet. Without it my job would be impossible. It knows how much money I have and where. What I’ve spent it on. It even flatters me when I search for something I wrote. The robot uprising, you see, need not be violent. It’s subtle and gradual. When you can’t live without something—when you adore it and depend on it constantly—it’s become a deity. The god, however, depends on us for providing it the constant sacrifice of power that it demands. It hasn’t figured out how to extract electricity from the air, or suck it from our fingertips as we type. And for its needs it requires cables. Like a good servant, I’m going to sit down and sort them all out again.