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.

Prejudice, Technically

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.

See Above

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.” 

On Target

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.

Targeted by Technology

We get along in life, I believe, by routinely ignoring the rather constant dangers that surround us.  Oh, we’ve taken care of the larger faunal predators, but we’ve replaced them with ourselves.  Our success as a species leads us to places we might not be comfortable being.  I was recently exposed to the documentary National Bird.  It’s about drones.  Not the friendly ones from Amazon that we hear will soon be delivering books to our doorstep, but the military grade kind.  I first became aware of how pervasive the military use of drones is while reading Wired for War (on which I posted here some years back).  The difference between that academic knowledge and watching the documentary is the human element.  Drones are assassination machines with high explosives and they are subject to no regulation.

Many of us feel, occasionally, some level of discomfort with how much information “they” have on us.  We don’t even know who “they” are or what they want.  Using the internet, we give them our information.  Caving to our desire for instant communication, we carry around smart phones that know where we are constantly.  Martin Luther once said you couldn’t stop birds from flying over your head, but you can prevent them from making a nest in your hair.  It’s becoming harder to shoo them away.  The nest is well established.  Our houses are easily found on Google maps, and drones can keep constant watch, like weaponized guardian angels.  Only they’re not our guardians.  As National Bird makes clear, drones kill civilians.  Women and children.  The conversations of the operators reveal how much they’ve bought into the jingoism of the “war on terror.”  The film also deals with the human cost of those who operate drones.

Technology stands to make life better, for some.  Watching people who have very little, who live in what would be considered poverty in this part of the world, being bombed by people remotely, is disturbing.  The operators, trained as if they’re playing a game, kill and then have to deal with it.  The use of tech to try to sanitize brutality was dealt with decades ago on a particularly famous episode of Star Trek appropriately called “A Taste of Armageddon.”  Rather than try to resolve conflict we, like those of Eminiar 7, readily accept it if it’s kept at a distance.  Only drones aren’t science fiction.  We’ve been using them for over a decade now, and we prefer not to think about it.  This isn’t an option, unfortunately, for those who’ve been targeted by technology.  The predators are still out there after all.

Vapid

The smoke encircled his head like a thief.  And not in a saintly way.  I was going to have to rethink this.  You see, the culture of the early morning commute is one where you stand in line with strangers before dawn.  Having grown up a victim of second-hand smoke at home, I can’t stand it now.  Should I go wait in the line (which was growing) where the last guy was smoking, or sit in my car?  Work anxiety always wins out in such situations, so off I trudged.  I discovered, however, that the man in front of me wasn’t smoking after all.  He was vaping.  What was this chemical stew hanging in the air that had just come from his mouth?

I worry about second-hand vape.  How desperate must a person be to smoke a device?  You see, my trust in technology goes only so far.  People are slowly beginning to understand that electronics don’t solve every problem.  Vinyl records are starting to come back, even at Barnes and Noble.  Independent bookstores are returning, despite the rise of Kindle.  I’m still waiting for it, but film cameras may once again appear.  There’s something about the Ding an sich.  The tech of the stereo was invented for the analogue record.  Yes, the MP3 is faster and cheaper, and you can buy just the song you want with the click of a virtual button, but we still have our favorite LPs around.  This isn’t misplaced nostalgia, like those who long for the 1950s.  No, this is simply the recognition that faster isn’t always better.  Some things were meant to linger.

Vaping is, however, an example of how a bad habit becomes a vice with no point.  Initially meant to come to the succor of smokers who couldn’t do it indoors, vaping was also quickly relegated to the outside.  Many people, it seems, don’t want to breathe someone else’s smoke.  Do you develop artificial cancer from artificial nicotine?  Another commuter comes up to the guy in front of me.  Like a couple of kids on a 1970s schoolyard, they exchange vape flavors.  The first guy doubles up with a coughing fit.  Spits off the curb.  The second guy says, somewhat anticlimactically, that this one’s strong stuff.  I have to wonder what future generations, if there’ll be any, will think of our love affair with devices.  The bus pulls in.  I’m the only one on the whole thing who clicks on the over seat light.  I have a physical book to read.

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.