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…
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.
There are times when the Internet’s asleep. Okay, well, so maybe that’s overstated, but if you have my hours you’ll quickly find the things you can’t do online well before 9 a.m. For example, just the other day I wanted to check out one of my accounts that I only vaguely understand. It’s with a company my employer contracts with, and it has an innocuous name that tells you nothing about what it really does. Still, I had to check in. After looking up the password, and going through the usual 18-step confirmation of my identity (it didn’t recognize my laptop), I landed on a page stating that it was the routine maintenance period for the website, and would I be so kind as to check back in later. This is not an isolated incident. In fact, I often awake around 3 a.m. to find that my laptop’s also doing routine maintenance, although I’m using it nearly every day at that time. Smart tech, indeed.
You see, the ultra-early riser has a different view of time than the rest of the world. After about 4 p.m. I don’t have the sharpness that was evident twelve hours before. Oh, I can still function, but it’s on auxiliary power. No warp drive that late in the day. I realize I’m the weird one here. After visiting friends and family and staying up to the obscenely late hour of 10 p.m., I’ll take an entire week to get back on track with days passing in a fuzzy haze of timely confusion. I’ve been trying to break the habit for over a year now, but I still occasionally have to go into New York City, and those days require ultra-early awakening. Knowing such a day is coming up, my body doesn’t want to be vulnerable to that shift. So I wake up naturally when many others are just getting to bed.
This is mid-day for some of us.
The problem with this is that if you have to get some business done before work hours, many websites are undergoing their maintenance. They don’t want to be interrupted when I’m actually alert. There’s a lot of talk about diversity these days, but the person trapped in the early rising net is not a protected category. It is frustrating to have people say “why don’t you just go back to sleep?” when you can’t. I’ve gotten used to all that. The early bird, they say, gets the worm. That depends, however, whether the worm is on the Internet or not because, believe it or not, the Internet slumbers in the middle of the night.
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.
I must admit that I received my first “smart phone” with more than a little trepidation. It was going on a decade ago and I didn’t know my app from a hole in the ground. What was this thing that was a telephone and yet so much more? I carry it around with me, nevertheless, and I use it for the very occasional text, for a camera, and when it was younger, as a geocaching device. My sense of distrust came from being a user of personal computers for many years. There would be constant upgrades and renewals and each would cost you something. You don’t buy just a smart phone, you buy a liability. This Luddite screed arises from my attempts to get my boarding pass for my flight yesterday, with a special shout out to United Airlines.
Things change. I’m cool with that. Still, “checking in” for a flight has always meant your ticket was secure. When I went to check in yesterday, for the first time ever United Airlines allowed it only through your smart phone and only via its app. The app is free but my phone is of such an age that the app won’t work with it. I received the confirming text stating I wasn’t checked in. Wasn’t that exactly the same as the status at which I’d started? Why then did I spend half an hour of my Saturday trying to select a seat and telling it I am a vegetarian? (Vegans, it seems, are from another planet.) At least I didn’t have to specify a non-smoking row. I realized as I hung up that I was being shamed for not updating my phone.
You see, capitalism thrives on forcing the purchase of new things. If you wear clothes that are out of style (guilty as charged!) then you aren’t playing by the rules. If your phone is too big or too small (yes, size does matter), or if it flips open instead of being accidentally awakened when slipped out of your pocked, you’re a Luddite. If you can’t afford an update (which no longer fits in the pocket of a guy my size) you deserve to be shamed. You can’t check in. You have to stand in line and proclaim to all, “I didn’t upgrade.” I still use an iPhone 4S. It does what I need it to do. United Airlines doesn’t think so, however. Most of the apps have ceased to work. Now it is once again simply a phone, pretty much back where I’d started.
As we slide beneath the hegemony of technology, I’m impressed by the redefinition of vocabulary it demands. Because new printing technologies assume, for example, that the XML (one of the many mark-up languages) is primary, directional references in texts are inadequate. An example might help. If you’re a human being reading a book, and the author has discussed something a few pages ago, s/he might write “see above.” Now, it’s not literally above in the sense of being higher up on the same page (but it may be considered literally if the book is closed. And lying face up). The pages you already read are above those where you left the bookmark. I remember the first time I encountered this language; having been raised a literalist (and a naive realist) my eye hovered over the header and I wondered about the accuracy of “see above” or “see below.” The terminology soon became second nature, however, and I knew it wasn’t a literal reference.
In the days of XML (“eXtensible Markup Language,” therefore literally EML), the sense of play is now gone from writing. I’ve heard editors explain to authors that, in an ebook there is no above or below because there are no pages. A time-honored metaphor has been sacrificed on the altar of a tech that sees the world in black-and-white. You can’t point vaguely in the direction from which you’ve just come and say “it’s back there somewhere.” I sense, given all of this, that most copyeditors haven’t written a non-fiction book (for this is mostly an academic affectation). As a human being writing, you get into the flow and you don’t think, “Ah, I mentioned that in paragraph 2749; I’d better say it’s there.” And the reason you need to know the paragraph number is so the ebook can have a hyperlink. The argument itself suffers for XML precision.
As someone who writes both fiction and non, I am bound to look at this from the viewpoint of a human author. I’ve been known to paint and make sketches on occasion. All of these forms of expression have flow in common. At least when they’re good they do. If you want to stop a project cold, just say “Hey, I’m writing!” and watch yourself drop like a cartoon character who’s run off a cliff and just realized it. I’m sorry, I can’t point you to exact where that’s happened. It’s in many vague recollections of many cartoons I watched as a child. If the technomasters aren’t watching I’ll just say, “see above.”
Time, especially weekend time, is a non-renewable resource. Since I barely have enough time as it is, I do my best not to squander it. Yesterday we had to visit our local Target—we don’t buy at WalMart because there’s an ethics even to shopping these days. When we got inside it was obvious that a lot of people had the same idea. I’d never seen Target so crowded, and I’ve been in one on a Christmas Eve. We had only a small basket of purchases, so before long we headed for the checkout and saw an enormous line. Not being afraid of tech, we went toward the self-checkout and found that line long as well. Long and not moving.
Soon it became clear that all the registers were down. Store employees were handing out free bottled water and snacks, like airports used to do with cancelled flights. We were in for a good long wait. When we finally reached the register, which had started to come back online, the manager was helping those trying self-checkout. Since the system was still not really functioning, you could check out one item at a time—after several tries, each time requiring the manager to enter his pass-code—and pay for it and restart the process for the next item. We asked about the outage. He said it was global, all Target stores were down. “You’ll have a story to tell,” he said. My mind was actually going toward technology and its limitations. How much we rely on it. Without tech this blog would not be. A lot of famous people would be unknown. How would we find our way from point A to point B? Or look up a phone number?
The internet is beguiling in its ubiquity. We use it almost constantly and it’s always there for us. So we’ve come to believe. In addition to spreading the tissue of lies that is the Trump administration’s agenda of using post-truth as a means of power, it must be supported by a whole host of experts—those 45 routinely dismisses as irrelevant. Clouds were gathering outside, and I had a lawn yet to mow before the day was out. Indeed, my wife and I had intended this to be a quick trip because weekends and sunshine are a rare mix. As we bagged our six items and thanked the manager, we could see the line still snaking the length of the store. Had we more time we might’ve come back another day. Instead, we had briefly fallen victim to something that an old-time punch register might’ve solved. And a time when the pace of life itself was just a bit slower.