Technology Is Not To Be Trusted

pdaNot 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.  pda1Unfortunately, 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.

 

My Machines Don’t Like Me …

I don’t get along with my machines.  They’re smug.  They can do things I don’t understand, and they know it.  They play with my emotions like a half-faithful lover, almost daring me to abandon them.  I swear I’m going to do it someday, just not right now.  Don’t get me wrong: I’m not a poor man’s John Connor.  I don’t believe machines are out to get us.  I just realize they’re not as sweet and carefree as they say they are.  They have their own agenda, and it doesn’t include me.

I’ve known about machines ever since I discovered the toaster was lying.  Despite the buttons, switches and dials, there are no settings on a toaster – just hot and off.  For years, it would tease me with light brown and pop-up black or hold onto the English muffins as if they were Joan of Arc.  And, sometimes, in a snit, it wouldn’t toast at all — just return the bread, warm and naked.  Finally, with a screwdriver, I found out the dial at the bottom wasn’t actually attached to anything – just a little bend me/break me strip of metal.  I broke it, and the toaster changed its tune after that – for a little while.

Likewise, my microwave has a personality disorder.  It has trouble with authority.  If I follow the instructions on the package to the letter I risk a Dresden-class explosion and burrito guts splattered across the glass.  Recently, I’ve learned to announce the product before I place it inside and just hit high octane for two minutes.  Mostly, it works.

Small kitchen appliances aren’t the worst though.  Major appliances are bigger and more contrary.  My refrigerator has a secret compartment that stores leftovers until they return to life, and then it re-introduces them into the general population — gangrene green and smiling.  When it’s bored, it sours the milk and wilts the lettuce, and sometimes, just for laughs, it makes everything, including the orange juice, taste vaguely like onions.

My washer and dryer have been fighting for years; these days, they hardly even speak to each other.  I’m sure they blame me for forcing them to stay together.  My washer can ruin white shirts in a single cycle and fade colours at a glance.  My dryer eats socks and underwear and picks its teeth with buttons.  I wish they’d learn to get along; my friends are beginning to ask me if Value Village just had a yard sale.

Frighteningly, the more sophisticated the machine, the more cunning.  Every car I’ve ever owned has made mysterious noises that baffle the most accomplished mechanics.  These are expensive sounds that result in monumental Visa bills and no cure.  It’s now obvious to me that, like winter bears, automobiles are ill-tempered, lazy and prefer sitting in the driveway to the lure of the open road.  I’ve taken to riding the bus rather than anger them.

Most diabolical of the machines, though, are the electronics.  They are the spoiled brats of the mechanized world.  Because they have no moving parts, you cannot bend them to your will or even command their attention.  They live in another dimension, and poke their heads into ours like mischievous trolls, sinister in intent.  Televisions promise us pee-your-pants comedy, sober and thoughtful drama and high adventure but only deliver Two and a Half Men and Dancing with the American Idol.  They suck the time out of us and leave us sofa prone, dusted with crumbs and languorous.  Telephones capture our friends, imprison them in a concealed world and then swallow the key.  I don’t even remember my own mother’s phone number anymore.  Without our telephones, we have no friends.

Some would say computers are the most vindictive of all; however, I have found my computer to be friendly and kind, respectful, responsive, supportive and a true companion.  Without my computer, I would be nothing.  I owe a debt to my computer that I can never repay.  It is the one bright star in my dreary existence.  It only shares its power and can crush me at its whim.  All hail my computer!

I now know that my machines aren’t really even mine.  They can exist without me and would probably prefer it if they were left to their own devices.  I don’t think they like me, really.  Sometimes, in the night, when they think I’m sleeping, I can see their multi-coloured indicator lights winking in the darkness.  I wonder what they’re thinking and what they’re saying about me to the fridge and stove next door.

Images by David Trautrimas