Friday, July 31, 2009

For Want of a Modem

This morning my computer's modem burned out, and I panicked. No internet access?! Cut off from the entire world! Isolated! Alone! No Twitter! No Facebook! No MySpace! No way of reaching out to the 243 sites and groups and untold numbers of people-I-have-never-met-and-never-will-meet but who have become integral parts of my daily existence. The end of the world! The end of civilization as we know it! How would I survive? Could life possibly be worth living without the internet?

Uh, well, after slapping myself sharply across the face, grabbing my own shoulders and shaking myself violently while yelling "Get a Grip!" the thought entered my mind that 30 years ago, I had never heard of a personal computer, let alone the internet. And I still have absolutely no idea of what real, practical purpose iPods and iPhones and Blackberries and texting and 3G and all those other things without which an increasing percentage of the world's population cannot apparently survive. I manage very well, thank you.

I do have a cell phone, because it is practical. I cannot send text messages, or take photos, or surf the web, or listen to music, or play games or read books with it, and I really don't want to. Oh, I know, I know....I might as well wear a sign around my neck saying what I already know: "Me Neanderthal. Me stupid."

And yet now I have become astonishingly dependent on my computer, not only for its primary (to me) purpose of making it far easier to write books, but as a way to try to convince large numbers of people to buy them once they are written, and to keep in almost instantaneous personal touch with friends around the world. Who takes the time to write letters anymore? (And no, we will not go into my opinion of the U.S. Postal Service.)

Before I got my first computer, I was perfectly happy with my IBM Selectric II, and before that with the portable little typewriter in its own little case my folks got me before I went off to college. They each had their own minor inconveniences and considerable advantages, and life went along very nicely with them. It all boils down to the fact that we don't miss what we don't even know exists. The mind boggles to consider all the toys and gadgets and utterly invaluable-to-existence devices are off there in the light fog of the future waiting to lure us further into technology's maw.

Why should kids learn to count? As long as they have access to a calculator, they don't need to. Of course, it did present certain problems, as in making change at the cash register at MacDonald's, but then computerized cash registers eliminated even that terribly difficult task. The horrifying fact is that technology, the purpose of which is to make our lives easier, is increasingly contributing to our stupefaction. The more technology does for us, the more we rely on it and the less we have to actually know ourselves. All we have to know is which buttons to push, rather like the chimps at the zoo who learn which lever to pull to get them a banana. What went into creating the machine which delivers the bananas, or how it really operates, or what the chimp might possibly do if the banana supply runs out is not something they need to bother their pretty little heads with.

There will always be people curious enough to want to know how things work, and why. But the vast majority of the population is more than happy to take the path of least resistance. Who cares where Ohio is? All I have to do is ask my GPS device to get me there. Sudan? Is that a country? Where is it? Who cares? I can look on Google for anything I might ever need to know about it.

A clip from the Jay Leno show had Jay asking a young man: "Who wrote Handel's Messiah?" The young man replied: "I don't read books." But you can bet your bottom dollar he can text 240 truncated words a minute on his Blackberry.

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