Against technology (sort of)

Pluto. Courtesy NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft.

Like many people, I have a love-hate relationship with technology. Though I spend most of my days — and nights — on a computer, I rarely text. Indeed, I rarely turn on my cell phone.

I suppose I could attribute this to being of a certain vintage or not having children, who would’ve spurred me to keep up with the times. Then, too, that I lost my newspaper job to downsizing in the digital age didn’t exactly warm my heart.

But mostly, my apathy to technology stems from the idea that who we are is in part who we are not. I’m less intrigued with the present and the future than how the past influences them, and I’m less concerned with how things work than why they do. 

It reminds me of what Jane Wyman supposedly told a reporter after she divorced Ronald Reagan:  “Ask him for the time and he’ll tell you how the watch was made.”

Jane, I feel your pain.

What would Jane, who died 10 years ago, have done in our present age of information overload, in which the watch never shuts up — about how many steps you’ve taken, what your heart rate is, why you should take the Merritt Parkway instead of I-95, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. Or the computer with its endless “notice me, I’m always working” pop-ups, like an overeager employee who must constantly be micromanaged and reinforced with what a splendid job he’s doing. For a writer, whose main job is to think, this constant handholding gets old — fast.

Of course, information overload should never be confused with useful information, because if there’s one thing that’s true in the digital age it’s that the people who create computers and their programs are not especially good at explaining their finer points. For example, I decided I needed some stars (like so, ***) to denote a scene shift in something I was writing and, in typing my stars, did something that created a hard page break — everywhere. No matter what you did — deleted text, block-saved text into a new document — the page breaks remained, like Javert dogging Jean Valjean in “Les Misérables.”

What to do? Luddite though I am — and by the way, the Luddites were not against technology so much as they were for improved conditions for textile workers and weavers in early-19th century England — I Googled how to eliminate page breaks and learned that you had to click on the Show/Hide button and then on the break itself — which didn’t work. In the end, WAG’s associate creative director Dan Viteri clicked on Normal and then Clear Formatting. I then reformatted the document. Sigh.

Did you ever notice how in the global marketplace, much of the instruction for technology exists in the form of diagrams instead of a specific language? People, when you want a loaf of bread, do you draw a picture or do you say to the baker, “I’d like a loaf of sourdough, please”? The written and spoken word matter.

I am, however, not a complete Luddite. Often I look at machinery with awe, because I could never have thought of it. Like my Samsung washing machine. I still can’t get over the notion that while I’m busy doing other things, Mr. Washing Machine — unlike needy Mr. Computer — is doing his job. He even sings Schubert’s “Die Forelle,” a jaunty song about a fish, when he’s done. (For the money I paid for him, he should sing the entire score of Mozart’s “Don Giovanni.”) He and his new companion, Mr. Maytag Dryer, are my idea of technology, because — and this is tech’s dirty little secret — it’s not a timesaver if you have to spend (waste) a lot of time continually interacting with it.

Apart from the time-draining aspects of technology, I also worry about the way it obviates technique. Every kid with a karaoke machine, every parent with a cellphone camera, every person with a Twitter account thinks he’s a singer, a moviemaker and a writer. (Remember that the word “Twitter” contains the word “twit.” Or, to borrow Truman Capote’s snide assessment of Jack Kerouac, “That’s not writing. That’s typing.”) The words “technology” and “technique” share the same ancient Greek root, meaning “skill, craft, art.” But technology can create a false sense of technique and talent. In order to hone your craft, you have to use technology rather than letting it use you.

Technology can also create an illusion of authenticity — the holy grail of the present age. Along with all the articles sounding the alarm about how screen time has adversely affected our independence and cognitive skills, there are those that suggest social media has made us more isolated. You don’t necessarily know the poster on the other end of the supposedly clever name that sounds like some leftover CB handle. And, as one who has spent a lifetime reporting, I can tell you that when you are busy recording experiences, you’re not having them. Or rather, you are having filtered experiences. I’ll never forget watching a young man intent on capturing an image of Vincent van Gogh’s penultimate self-portrait at a Metropolitan Museum of Art exhibit. Finally, I couldn’t stand it. I went over to him and said, “Why don’t you put away your cell phone and actually look at the painting and have a conversation with it?”

I know:  I’m sure he thought I was nuts. But I believe technology serves us best when it does what we cannot. The guided cortisone injection I had earlier this year, which used ultrasound to pinpoint the problem in my frozen left shoulder, was miraculous. And I’ll never forget the early birthday present I received on July 14, 2015, courtesy of NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft, which did a flyby of my favorite planet, Pluto — yes, it will always be a planet to me — sending home detailed images of the little charmer, with its heart-shaped spot and its five moons. 

I heart you, Pluto, just as I heart Mr. Washing Machine. Speaking of which, he’s nearing the end of his wash cycle. Time for our duet.

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