A Sideways Glare at Contemporary Society
Not so many years ago, I had a PDA (I still don’t know what that stands for) from Palm. I loved that little thing. I carried it with me like a religious icon. It held all my worldly knowledge and then some. It was the beginning of the end of my memory because it told me what the phone numbers were, when the birthdays were, where I was supposed to go, what I was supposed to do and even what I’d been thinking two weeks before. It saved my pictures and played music. I even typed out a couple of short stories on its tiny screen. It still holds most of my accumulated life, sitting in a dark closet, silent and forlorn, replaced by a telephone that’s smarter than I am. My PDA (I called it Oscar) was my first foray into techno-living, and it taught me a valuable lesson: information technology is not to be trusted.
Way back in the day, when Hammurabi wanted to tell his people that goat stealing was a no-no for civilized Babylonians, he made a law. Then, in order to get the word out, he found a guy with a hammer and chisel and etched that law into stone. It was a permanent record. In fact, if you happen to be hanging out at The Louvre and just happen to understand ancient Akkadian cuneiform, you can still read all about it and a whole lot more — in the original text. Three thousand seven hundred and some odd years later, Hammurabi can reach through history and talk to us in the 21st century. Cool, huh? This is information technology in its simplest and most durable form – and it’s universal. For example, we know that “The Drunks of Menkaure” helped build the Pyramids in Egypt because they carved their name on a rock. Likewise, we have Sanskrit texts from India, the famous Mayan calendar from Mesoamerica and literally tons of other information from all over the world. It’s not exactly an Information Super Highway, but we have enough stuff to get a pretty good vibe about what was going on before Herodotus turned history into a paying proposition. The only problem with “cut into stone” technology is you have to be standing right beside it in order to use it. It might be permanent, but it sure as hell isn’t portable.
However, our ancestors were an ingenious lot, and after several centuries of trial and error, they came up with a portable semi-permanent product called paper. Paper and all the information we inscribed on it served our civilization well until the 1980s when Bill Gates and Stephen Jobs killed it dead as Disco. Jobs, Gates and the boys turned information into electricity, and we’ve been expanding on that ever since. And therein lies the problem.
Today, I carry all I know and all I need to know in the palm of my hand – including a translation of Hammurabi if I want it. Unfortunately, without the machine to read it, I have nothing. Not only that but if my good friends at Google decide to kill the thing (I honestly don’t know what it is) they call Android, I’m totally screwed. Under some circumstances, I wouldn’t even be able to find my way home. After all, it’s not like I carry maps anymore – or an address book, or an appointment calendar or even a pen. But it doesn’t have to actually get that drastic. For all intents and purposes, most of my (and a lot of other people’s) existence gets put on hold every time the techno somebodies change their minds. For example, when the Palm operating system went out of business, so did I — for a while. The information was there (somewhere) but I couldn’t see it. It was like trying to fit my vinyl recording of Sgt. Pepper into my CD player. (Yes, I still have both.)
Of course, these days, information isn’t even really “there” anymore. There is no tangible place (like my old Palm) that has my sisters’ phone numbers or my doctor’s appointment or my nephew’s wedding pictures. All these things do exist but in such specific formats that one techno-twitch either way and they disappear. They haven’t been destroyed; it’s just that nobody can see them. I might have all my information backed up on an SD card or Flash Drive, but without a corresponding slot to put it in or a protocol that recognizes it, my information becomes a lump of factory formed plastic. And what happens to Grandma’s birthday party if the Cloud goes away?
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not a 21st century Luddite, but I keep a handwritten address book and my photo albums right beside Oscar the PDA because, these days, information might be portable but it sure as hell isn’t permanent.