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Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Connection Infection

[Note - I have no freakin' idea why this video won't display, and I've re-embedded it twice.  If it doesn't display on your end, here's the link.]

Your Head Trucker is one of the few people now living outside of a nursing home who has actually sent a telegram for ordinary communication - ten words for $1.50 in 1966.  SRSLY.

Stephen Heiner, a recovering Blackberrier, on the plague of eternal uplinkedness (honk to Andrew Sullivan):
As this breakthrough happened, I realized something deeper about the way we use phones – not just the smart ones: we are their slaves. We jump whenever they call because we never, ever turn them off. They only get turned off if we run out of battery life, and even then we become desperate for a charger and can think of little else until our depleted child has the charging indicator safely blinking and is serenely drinking its electronic milk.

We have allowed ourselves to become 24/7 radio beacons. We are always on. Always ready to transmit or receive. There is a nervous habit that the younger generation has of checking their cell phones every 90 seconds or so. Just watch them. They didn’t hear a text message notification, but they are checking their phones just in case. And who knows, one might feel the urge to send a text message because heck, it’s been 30 seconds since one was sent. Watch people in airports, or in the auto repair shop, or on a university campus. There is a constant need to check to see if they are still plugged in. It is a nervous tic that they don’t even know is a tic.

In previous times, when we were more tied to place and limits as a society, people were reached at a specific location. Letters came to homes. Telegrams came to homes. Phone calls were placed…to homes. The cell phone, the harbinger of the always-on internet society, unhooked the anchor of place from communication. And when communication is not limited, is not circumscribed, it becomes unlimited and tyrannous. . . .

While people always cite “emergencies,” more often than not the singular reason that a cell phone exists in their lives is to give them a crutch to prevent them from being alone with themselves, their thoughts, and their fellow human beings. Going to the gym? Call a friend. Running an errand? Send a text. Eating something interesting? Take a picture and show the world on Facebook. We are incapable of living outside the virtual cloud that surrounds us. We can only fully live if we are constantly connected.

Or we can turn it off, put ourselves back in control of the machine, and take back the solitude and dreamy quiet of our thoughts: the beginnings of a recollection that lends itself to prayer and conversation.
What I Say:  It's truly astonishing to consider how quickly and vastly the Internet has changed our lives in what seems to me like a rather short time.  When I was finishing college at the turn of the 70's/80's, computers were still largely in the commercial-use-only phase.   All big companies and most small ones by that time were sending you computerized bills every month, and I do recall that by my senior year the library at my university had supplemented the card catalog - gee, I miss those - with an electronic one.  Which actually had, wonder of wonders, not a keyboard but a touch-screen display (black screen and amber characters, no pictures, no Windows).  Which of course was promptly covered with every kind of greasy fingerprint imaginable and stayed that way.

But even though the very first PC's had just come on the market by the beginning of the decade, if I remember rightly, nobody but a very few intensely passionate fans of technology ("geek" had yet to enter the lexicon as a term for those guys) had them.  Pocket calculators, yes (from about 1975), but PC's, no.  For one thing, they were hideously expensive, maybe the equivalent of two to three thousand dollars now.  For another, to use them you had to learn a whole programming language, like Basic.  But even if you had the dough to invest in one, and the many long hours of solitary study to be able to program it, my thought always was, just what the hell would you do with it once you had it?

Continued after the jump . . . .

Type letters?  Why go to all that expense and bother when I already had a very good electric typewriter, and had learned touch typing in high school?  (60 words per minute, very respectable.)

Balance your checkbook?  Why, when I could already do that in fifteen minutes once a month, using a pencil and a ten-dollar calculator? 

Play games?  I really don't remember hearing about PC games until much later in the '90's, and in any case, once again why go to all the expense and hassle when you could do that at a bar or café with a few quarters?  Which was fun once in a while but never a big thing with me, having come along when I was past adolescence.

Plot a trajectory for a rocket mission to Mars?  Oh come now. 

There just was no obvious advantage to having a computer in those days, that I could see; no function helpful in my life that wasn't already being taken care of simply and easily with pre-existing tools.  (A pencil and a piece of paper are still awful damn handy, but nobody wants to hear that now.)  Towards the end of the '80's I did know a prosperous colleague, a book lover, who bought the latest and greatest PC of the time, still with the black screen and amber characters - which would look like a peculiar toy now, and probably had less than a megabyte of memory - and you know what great use he put it to, as he excitedly told me?  Making a list of all the many books he owned, by title and author.

Of course, I smiled and said "wow, that's great."  All the while thinking, And your point is . . . ?  How will you ever put that list to use, and what actual good will it do you, bud, when you can simply look at the books on the shelves in your house and see what you have, with your own eyes?

By the beginning of the '90's, though, most offices in companies of any size were getting equipped with PC's for word processing and other business uses; a lot of secretaries' desks suddenly got filled up by a new computer sitting cheek by jowl with the old typewriter, and it was about that time I lucked into an opportunity to learn the new Word for Windows, which was indeed a great step forward - because then for the first time you could copy and paste, and do other functions that are taken for granted now, like italics - which helped a lot with every kind of writing or editing task.  But not by using a mouse, kids - you highlighted things with the shift+arrow keys, and then used keyboard commands.  Mouses - Mice? - Meece? - hadn't been invented yet.  To make something italic or bold, say, you first highlighted, then used ctrl+the letter "I", or for bold the same, only "B," underlining ditto with "U," and so forth.

All of which still works just fine, BTW, even in other apps like Google mail, and is a great convenience when typing.  But it was still the black screen, though I seem to remember green characters at that time, which were perhaps a little gentler on the eyes.  Not until 1991 did I ever see a full-color Windows screen - version 3.1, I believe it was - a relative of my first husband's proudly showed off his new super-advanced machine, which really was rather astonishing to look at.  Ooh, all the bright colors, cool - just like color TV . . . and all those little pictures - what do you call them?  Oh icons, right, I get it . . . .

But still, the price was awfully high for a working man; don't remember the exact figure, but I think at that time a machine like that would have cost me most of a month's salary, which was out of the question.  And still . . . what the fuck would you do with it if you had it?  Nothing that could possibly justify that kind of outlay.  It wasn't until Al Gore invented the Internet (wink) and email that it finally began to dawn on me - slowly, gradually - that here was something that just might be worth having.

I don't know about you guys, but the internet - oh to hell with the capital, what a bore - didn't arrive in my universe until the very tail end of 1994, which I recall because of where I was living at the time.  And being PC-less with no techie friends, I was only made aware of it by seeing URL's start popping up in all kinds of magazine ads; which at first I recoiled from, being as they were such grotesque combinations of letters and punctuation.  So just how in the hell are you supposed to pronounce this? I would exclaim to anyone who would listen. 

But then by 1997, we had all gotten completely outfitted where I worked with not only PC workstations - we'd had those a long time already by that point - but also with Windows and internet and email.  Email - now that, I could see, was a genuine convenience, and required no postage stamps.  How cool.  And by a little judicious web surfing between assignments, I began to realize the wealth of information that was available online.  For free, which seemed so amazing. 

At the first internet-use training session I was sent to, I actually asked one of the trainers if it cost anything to use the internet - you know, like the phone company charged 25 cents a minute for long distance calls.  I know you're laughing, fellas - but hell, how was I to know any different, up to that point? 

Anyway, at work I got the hang of things pretty quick - and oh, what a happy day it was when they attached a mouse to my computer!  Then you could really zoom around and get work done.  By mid-1999, I was finally ready to get my own PC to use at home, though still a bit nervous about shelling out nearly a thousand bucks, I think it was, for a new one (and who knew what brand to buy, what features to get?) - luckily, a co-worker had a refurbished used one she let me have for only 200 bucks, so one magical night with a telephone wire and an AOL subscription, I was in business right there in the comfort of my own home.  Just amazing.

Oh and um, yeah . . . I also knew by this time from other magazine ads that there was a world of porn online too.  For free.  You younger guys have no idea what a jaw-dropping change this was.  (no pun intended)

Because up until then the only way you could see pics of naked guys was either to buy Playgirl - which didn't cost any more than Playboy, maybe a couple of bucks when I was in college, and was widely available at most convenience stores, etc., but involved considerable humiliation/embarassment to purchase - I mean, you might just as well have told the clerk flat out, "I'm gay," ya know?  Some would smirk or snicker as you walked off with your purchase, and almost all of them glared at you.

I used to have to get pretty drunk before I could work up the nerve to do this.  Seriously.  And usually I'd drive across town late at night, to a store where I hoped nobody would recognize me.  Not good, but that's the way things were back then, in your Head Trucker's late teens and early twenties.

Or else to buy an actual homo magazine like Honcho, etc, but those were waaaaaaay hard to find down here in the Deep South and in backwater areas like I was.  Once in a great while, while traveling or something, you would have the great good luck to stumble across a small-town bookstore or convenience store that carried such as that, but they were very few and far between - being highly illegal in most jurisdictions.  And cost three or four times as much as a Playgirl.

Or if you were really lucky, you might sometime or other have a friend who traveled to really big cities like New York or something, who would pick you up a genuine full-color hardcore magazine that was nothing but pictures.  But those were obscenely expensive (no pun intended) - say, forty or fifty bucks in 1980.  The equivalent of about $105 to $130 today.  Seriously.  Yes, really.  Which means a working stiff like your Head Trucker never acquired many of those goodies.  Pun intended.

But that was not a motivation for me to finally get a computer.  I just wanted to email my family and friends without having to buy postage.  No, really, I promise . . . why are you laughing?

Anyway, as stated, I got my first computer in '99, and I think I've been stuck to it ever since; which brings me back to the idea of how the PC and the internet have changed our lives so much, so fast, in just fifteen years or so.  The span of time between 1995 and now is the same length as that between 1975 and 1990; but whereas the earlier period - in my recollection at least - involved the usual changes in fashions and hair and cars and slang, everyday life was pretty much the same for most ordinary mortals.  The two main technological must-have innovations of that period being VCR's and microwaves - which at the start almost nobody had, and by the end almost everybody had.  Cell phones - the big, clunky ones that came with their own shoulder bag - were just starting to appear at the dawn of the '90's down here in the provinces.

Whereas in the last 15 years, not only the internet and email (which is passé for the younger generation now, it seems) but also a hundred other applications and gadgets and gizmos have become an ineradicable part of our work and our homes, and indeed of our minute-to-minute existence much of the time.  Your lives, I mean, all you hip, blue-state, big-city folks.  (Your Head Trucker is behind the curve, as usual.)  And getting more so every day, it seems.  Just amazing.

But as the blogger I quoted up top makes clear, this is not necessarily an unmixed blessing for humanity.  Will it all end, not with a bang, or even a whimper - but with a borg?

Standing here as we yet are, on the doorstep, you might say, of the new decade, your Head Trucker is, frankly, a little too creeped out to even try to imagine what modern life will be like in another ten years.  What's next - having the iphone circuitry implanted in your body?  A dashboard-display chip in your eye?  An incoming call alert vibrator in your . . . ?  Oh never mind.  This dog is too old for all that.  I'm just going to hang on to my email and my blog and my porn sites um, educational bookmarks, and keep sharpening my pencil the old-fashioned way.  They can't improve on that. 

Can they?


Frank said...

How true...we even travel with our matching lap-tops now. I rarely get phone calls so turning off my cell phone when I'm in PTown or some other fun place is no big deal. People feel obligated to keep phones on and handy at all times or be considered rude for not returning a missed call immediately! How DID we ever live without them?

Russ Manley said...

I rarely get phone calls too, so it's not essential to my life; a great convenience when away from home if I want to place a call.

I also find myself wondering how we did without microwaves and zip-lock bags. Grin.

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