Every time I hear someone keening about the threat that some new technology, gadget, application, movement or fad poses to another long established tradition, product or process, I think of something that the great actor and pop culture philosopher Stephen Fry said (via Twitter, no doubt): “Books are no more threatened by Kindle than stairs by elevators.”
He’s right. All this debate on electronic books versus hard copies, of Kindles and iPads tolling the death knell of libraries and such is really quite moot. The internet is not destroying our ability to read and write. Our children will not suffer from a lack of attention span brought on by vines and 142 characters and tubes full of Yous. While it may seem to those of us who, for most of our lives, had to base our social interactions on face to face encounters (or telephone or snail mail), it may seem that kids nowadays intent on their handheld devices are more remote than in “our” time. Yet how much more are our children interacting with others far beyond the scope of what was available to generations before them? No big whoop for them to have “friends” in other cities, states, countries, continents. The platform, the access may be different, but the search for that beyond ourselves grows. How we access knowledge, information, education and entertainment may change, but not our drive to seek those very things out in all aspects of our lives using all the tools available to us.
This morning, I type on a word processing program that allows for instant editing and editorial help. I can move and get rid of and retrieve any amount of text I want. I know how many words I have typed and can keep track of ancillary ideas outside of my main document if I so choose. I can pull up another window to search for a quote on the internet, or to make sure a referenced name is spelled correctly (both of these I did for the Stephen Fry quote in the first paragraph). If I wanted to, I could share my document with select others, and they could make comments and revisions in such a way that I could see the input of each individual reviewer, and decide whether or not to accept their suggestions.
I can also keep track of what time it is without having to take my eyes from my screen. I could pull out any one of my numerous compact discs acquired over the decades and listen to some music by using my disk drive. Or, more realistically nowadays, I can make the decision to access the local radio station which streams a live feed to my computer (www.thecurrent.org), or pull up iTunes to listen to a particular artist or album; or I can have iTunes shuffle the music, so I don’t know what I will be listening to song by song, but I do know that it will be something I have consciously decided that I like. Or I can bring up Pandora and start a station that plays music I don’t “own” but feel like listening to – a Bach solo cello concerto, a Debussy prelude, a Mozart quartet, perhaps. Mahler’s 2nd Symphony. Georg Philipp Telemann, or William Byrd or Gregorian chant. (This morning it’s cold and grey out – I opted for Pandora, and Bach.)
Or I could decide on silence. I often do. Silence is always an option.
How far modern life has come in my span of years! When I think of what I had as a young person as opposed to what my children have, or how much the workplace has changed in the 30-some years that I worked in an office of one type or another, I marvel at the measure of mankind. While I may look back with nostalgia at the “simpler” times of my childhood, I would never wish to return to them or the constraints of necessity that dictated my options back then. I could return to them, after all, if I truly wanted to – give up all the conveniences and tools and gifts that technology makes available to me at any given time – but I don’t want to. Oh, no.
Yet undeniably there is a trade-off. There always is. Options mean choice, and sometimes the very volume of choice available to us in this modern society can be overwhelming. Then there’s the incredible amount of complication to our lives of which we would really rather not have to worry about; we want these complicated things to be someone else’s problem, something that doesn’t really seem to impact ourselves. For instance, in order to have this word processing program make it so easy to capture my stream of consciousness in a share-able way, and to listen to Bach’s Orchestral Suite in C Major and to keep track of the time so I can ensure my daughter is not late for class, I need an interface that does all these things for me: a machine. This machine in front of me is made up of manufactured parts: plastic and wire, plasma, circuits and capacitors and all sorts of gidgets and gadgets that are entirely out of my comprehension. It runs on electricity (something to do with voltage and amperage and currents and such), which is piped into my house by a gridwork of wires overhead, and is given its integrity via something called the world wide web, which also comes in on wires – I think still above ground even though below ground has been deemed far better – in a way that is confounding and mysterious to my non-linear brain. When I stop and think about it, it almost seems like magic.
I remember the time before computers were a fixture in the office, let alone the home. The era of radio, cassette tape, typewriter. Even these things were beyond my ken. Then, wonder of wonders, came the personal computers, marvelous and fixed and so solid and amazing, and then even more remarkable, the networking of those stand alone terminals – something we take for granted, now. Nowadays I work off a laptop, so much smaller than the first models, and faster and more flexible, which is very convenient – but not as convenient as a tablet with a detachable keyboard would be. Someday, maybe.
Then there are the peripherals – a mouse (yes, I need a mouse, I’m not a touchpad kinda gal), and headphones to listen to Pandora or iTunes or the Current when I’m not alone. My simple laptop is not very robust, but it does have decent speakers. Because the wireless mice I used seemed to have so many problems with battery life or a constant need for continually updated drivers or having USB issues being unrecognizable to the ports, or something else unknown to my technologically challenged brain that I finally went back to my corded mouse, which works just fine for me, even if it’s not cool or cutting edge (no problem, since I, myself, am neither cool nor cutting edge).
Ah, and there’s the crux of the biscuit for me. The cutting edge, the razor’s edge – Occam’s Razor, that is. The scientific and philosophic rule which states that (according to Merriam-Webster) entities should not be multiplied unnecessarily, which is interpreted as requiring that the simplest of competing theories be preferred to the more complex or that explanations of unknown phenomena be sought first in terms of known quantities. Or, in the terms that I always apply to it: the more complicated something is, the more chance there is for something to go wrong.
Although computers are incredible things, they are also complex. Certainly more complex than typewriters. Way more complex than pen and ink. There are exponentially more things that can go wrong with them: hard drives fail, motherboards fail, drivers get updated, software and hardware are incompatible, coding does not encompass all operating systems or all browsers, fans stop cooling processing heat adequately, batteries only last so long, electricity may be unreliable or the electrical grid may fail, crumbs may get into keyboards or coffee gets spilt on chassis, newer operating specs require updated equipment, older software may cease to be supported, DNS attacks render websites unavailable, malware and viruses may infect operating systems, internet providers have technical issues, there are connectivity issues, and always, always, everything tends to cost money in some way, eventually.
Some days, when things don’t work, you want to chuck your machine out the window. Or you sit and stew in frustration as you wait for whatever issues are occurring to work themselves out since they are beyond your control. Or you breathe a thankful prayer that you backed up the hard drive before it failed and therefore you can recover all those pictures and documents and such – or you curse your wretched life because although you knew you should have, you kept getting told you should have, the ecclesiastical preacher of all things high tech kept fire and brim-stoning you about how you must back up your hard drive regularly, you didn’t and now you are lost, lost, lost and even if you had the money to hire experts to extract everything humanly (and technologically) possible off that stinking, worthless hard drive, you still have no guarantee that you’ll ever see those baby pictures again, or those videos of your cat doing that adorable thing she does, or all those essays you slaved over or all the research that you had cataloged…. and it’s then that Occam’s Razor cuts so deeply.
That’s when pen and ink look pretty darn good. That’s when you’ll rail against ever relying on GPS again, and you’ll not give up your paper mortgage statement, and when you swear you’ll never use an elevator again because it’s better for you to take the stairs, dammit. But after a night’s rest, when things are calmer and a sense of reality sets in, you put things back into perspective, and start pricing laptops. Because you don’t own all the Bach concertos out there. And you can’t move pen and ink onto a website to commiserate or celebrate or simply shoot the sh… er, breeze, with others. And even though the back end is so complicated, life is so much simpler when it’s at least a modicum of modern.
And you admit to yourself, even though you’re glad the stairs are there, sometimes, often times, heck, almost always, you just kind of want to use the elevators, instead. S’okay. I’ll even hold the door open for you. We’ll take the stairs the next time, I promise. Hey, listen! The elevator music is playing Bach….