Is technology becoming man's dysfunctional best friend?

I sing the psyche electric.

How long ago was it that we noticed that our machines reshape us? Maybe it was when 2001: A Space Odyssey creeped us out by pitting man against treacherous computer, but I think it was before that, maybe during the loom-smashings in England during the early 1800s. Anyway, it's hardly news that we're now evolving along with our creations, developing new abilities and losing old ones with what we can only hope is something like equal speed. It's sort of like the co-evolution of man and canine, but faster. (The theory there is that we can talk because we were able to lose our snouts, because our new pal the dog could do our smelling for us. At the same time, dogs lost the need to make a living, because they'd trained us to feed them.)

Part of our ongoing transmutation is that we devote more and more time to designing, making, earning money to buy, playing with and generally getting computers to do what we want them to.

Another part of our evolution is that this increasingly seems like a reasonable way to spend our time.

I was thinking of this recently after yet another skirmish with my Shuffle, the smallest and least-capable sibling in the burgeoning iPod family. I feel a jerk complaining about this gum-pack-sized chunk of white plastic since, like all Apple products, it's cute as a bug and a delightful enhancement to life when it works. Also, I got it for free, with a subscription to an online audio-book service. (Hi. My name is Renée, and I am a narrative junkie.)

The problem with the Shuffle is its inscrutability. This would not be a problem, except that thing was designed to play songs--short files all stacked up--not books, which are long files in which the listener wants to keep his place. As a little jukebox, it functions perfectly: You can go back to the last song, skip to the next one, go to the top of the playlist, pause and adjust the volume. That's all you need the thing to do, and, in the interests of economy, miniaturization and elegance, that's all its one little button does. No screen, no menus, no chat--just two little blinky lights on the front and a tiny battery light on the back. This simplicity seems beautiful, perfect in fact, right up to the moment when it loses your bookmark halfway into your Dick Francis.

This happened last week at the beginning of a workout, just after I'd stepped onto the treadmill, cinched on my nifty arm-strap holder and screwed the earbuds in, becoming Bionic Exercise Woman. But then I realized that I'd been shunted back to a previous bookmark in Chapter 2, with no way to fast-forward, an hour of boring sweat ahead me and nothing to read. (I forgotten to bring an emergency paperback, which for me is the extra quart of vodka stashed under the sink.)

The only cure is to go home, plug it into a port, call up the book on the computer, find my place and then update the Shuffle, which will have already announced, via its big friend and translator the laptop, that the update is already complete. That's what you think, you little moron, I find myself snarling.

The balky and laconic nature of the Shuffle reminds me, oddly enough, of the very first computer that refused to do what I told it, a Control Data Corporation behemoth that once occupied much of the ground floor of the computing building on campus. I encountered it back in the late '70s, when I took a couple of Fortran classes at the UA. The input/feedback thing, like so much else, was new then. There were no terminals, no screens, no keyboards. (Try to get your mind around it. I dare you.) You typed up your silly little practice program on punch cards, one line per card. Then you'd put your deck in the queue and wait for the huge printer to spew out wide, green-and-white printouts with sprocket holes down the sides. On the first run-through, line after line would inevitably begin "FATAL ERROR." This was the compiler's kindly way of saying that you were now stuck in the basement of the computing building--which just for fun was undergoing renovation--for half the night, most of it standing in line to use a punch-card machine so you could try, try again. Success in the pre-colonial era of programming required not just the ability to construct viable algorithms--that part was easy--but, more vitally, monumental patience and painstaking attention to detail. As my husband or any editor I have ever worked for will tell you, I am remarkable for neither of these qualities, and whatever thought I had of getting a practical education died in that basement.

Thirty years later, I consider myself to be reasonably cool about technology--hey, I know how to get the accent on my name and what to do when Word gets into its dread OVERTYPE mode--but once again, here I am wasting hours that will never come again, trying to bend an inanimate object to my will. And this one weighs less than an ounce. There's a fatal error here somewhere.

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