A Luddite Rant

Jul 20,2012

Stock photo from www.inmagine.com

Sometime after the last blog post and concordant with my most recent birthday, yours truly was the recipient of a very hungry virus which knocked the desktop computer out of commission for quite some time. Hospitalisation is what the men in suits called it when they came to carry the hard drive away for a week. When they finally brought it back, it was able to power up and do basic stuff, but Outhouse Express wouldn't open, which meant no one could petition me to translate documents, ask me for information, or send any kind of hate mail. It seems that that was the problem software to begin with--I opened a message that had a virus somewhere inside it. (Actually, I always thought that virii would only infect you if you actually downloaded an attachment, which I never do from suspicious-looking messages. But you learn something new every day.)

The upshot of the whole deal was that the men in suits managed to set my mail preferences so that spam actually goes into a spam folder, away from my eyes and out of my life, so that I don't have to actually open each message in order to delete it; they sort of magically disappear of their own accord after a certain amount of time has elapsed.

However, the lesson that I draw from this experience, after reorganising my paper files and wandering around the office cleaning stuff, is that these days we are far too dependent on computers. For everything.

For one thing, it used to be that if you wanted to put fuel in the car, all you had to do was walk into the station, tell the human at the counter which pump you wanted and hand him or her (or, in some cases, it) some cash. In a matter of seconds you were at the pump pumping. Now you have to dial up a whole bunch of access codes, put in your card to verify your other card, key in more numbers, and mostly stand around the pump waiting for the computer to process your stuff. This extends much more broadly. We spend a disproportionate amount of time waiting in front of machines that are supposed to make our lives easier, or more convenient, or maybe just better in some other intangible way that hasn't been clearly defined.

Socially, the machines seem to have become a substitute for personal interaction. Mobile telephones are given priority over people physically present. For years now in most industrialised societies, the norm has been to prefer electronic reproductions of life, in the form of television, to the real thing. As the reproduction became more convincing, people's dependence on vicarious pleasures increased and we became correspondingly more isolated. These days I see more people absorbed in their mail and iPods than fully present in their surroundings. When they go home, and more so the younger they are, they go straight to their interactive whatever-it-is and shut out the real world. When I was a child, video games consisted of white blocks and blips on a black screen, including your player piece, which you moved with a simple joystick. And you could never win--the levels just got harder and faster until you died. Just like life. Now the graphics for video games are so viscerally realistic that the user feels physically present, although there is nothing in the game that corresponds even remotely to anything a human being might actually experience.

Now that that's off my chest, in just a few moments I'll be back outside, where the weather is sweltering, but at least it's real. This computer is giving me a headache.

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