We watched the season opener of “South Park” the other night. I kept thinking “clinical depression,” of course, but also I could see that there is some truth in Stan’s “everything is crappy” evaluation. I’ve noticed that most things ARE not up to the quality standard that I’m used to. It could be that I’m out of touch with what the new generation wants. It could be that I’m clinically depressed. Who knows?
But part of what I see as “change that might be good, and might not be ALL good,” includes the takeover by technology of many things that used to be . . . done differently. Now when you walk around the supermarket, many people have their Bluetooth earphones in and are talking to someone on a cell phone. You can’t really just smile and ask, “How do I choose a good eggplant?” People are far away, their eyes glazed over, “multitasking.” And on public transportation or standing in line, people are tapping on their tiny screens, either their iPhones, iPods, iPod Touches, or iPads . . . or whatever. They’re not paying much attention or being very observant as far as their physical surroundings. A girl was hit by a vehicle and knocked down into a gully because she didn’t hear the approaching car–possibly because of the iPod that she had plugged into her ears–while she was jogging. No one noticed her down in the gully for several hours, possibly because they were preoccupied with the minutiae of their own “hurry up and get there” lives. Rushing to work, rushing to lunch, hurrying to do errands, hurrying to pick up the kids or spouse, in a huge rush to Get Somewhere Else. Not only do they never stop to smell the roses, but they don’t even notice the roses, or the sunflowers that have volunteered to pop up along the roadside, or the squirrels who are barking at one another in the trees. They have Important Stuff to do and Things On Their Minds.
Sure, like paying the bills, or keeping the kids in a good school, or what to wear to a party, or how to interview for a new job. All these things are valid concerns, but should they be our overbearing or only concerns? Should we be glued to a multi-player videogame all evening or watching mindless TV shows instead of reading or talking to the others in our household?
All this comes to mind today because of the attention the media and the society is paying to the accomplishments of Steve Jobs. Yes, I said I was saddened to hear of his passing to the next world. I already acknowledged that he did many innovative things.
But! Were all these innovations ALL GOOD? Or are there downsides to anything?
One accomplishment that would probably amuse or distress the man is that Westboro “Baptist Church” [ha] plans to picket Steve Jobs’ funeral because he had a wide platform but supported sin, according to them (by being “gay friendly,” apparently). Of course they announced their plans on Twitter (!) using an iPhone (!!). So there they are, using the very technology that I speak of . . . the technology that has pretty much become the baseline. The technology that Jobs either invented, sponsored, or innovated–take your choice of words.
I was a very early adopter of e-mail and the ‘net. I had a “home computer” way back when people asked, “What would you need THAT for?” and said that the only application they could think of would be to balance the checkbook with it. They couldn’t imagine why I would want to hack around with small programs in BASIC on the Commodore PET and later in Applesoft BASIC. They couldn’t fathom why I joined CompuServe early on (70356,62 was my ID) and communicated with “people you don’t even know who live far away.” They could not figure out why it mattered that I could talk to writers and editors I would otherwise never get to meet. We would discuss topics that they knew about but that my local friends/co-workers had no interest in. (I was a software weenie at the time, and they couldn’t see any use in literature or books unless they were computer manuals–occasionally an SF novel or TV show, but otherwise, boring and useless to them.) I started running a BBS as soon as I got an Apple ][ Plus and a disk drive (Net-Works II, a board for roleplaying gamers and fiction writers). I saw early on the potential for me to type my books and revise them without having to retype an entire page or batch of pages whenever I made a tweak (although dot matrix printers ruled for years, and they were a real pain in every sense, including hearing.) So I’m not a Luddite.
Yet I see us losing something. We are losing the human connection. Yes, a Tweet is typed by a person and gets sent to other people, but still something’s missing. So many people would rather check the net news and surf around a bit instead of speaking to their neighbors or family members in the morning and evening. Everyone plugs into their personal music player and is “absent” to others around while watching a portable DVD. I mean . . . they’re great as consumers of content. But is there something missing?
I love my digital camera. I can now shoot tons of frames and throw away the bad ones without spending a ton of money and time on film processing and printing on paper. I can tweak an image until I’m ready to print it or post it. That is mostly great. We’ve lost a little bit of warmth and so forth, but I can live with that. I am a bit more reserved about digital music, because much of it is compressed, and sound quality suffers much of the time. Earbuds and a sampled track won’t measure up to the old warm vinyl and the expensive audiophile setup my dad used to have. We compromise on that, but there’s a loss.
Maybe the things Jobs and others have invented and brought forth are in many ways good–but change is not always for the better. Perhaps some of the changes that have taken place are NOT very beneficial. When you look at what’s happening to books, how do you feel about it? Do you rejoice that you can keep a library in a Kindle? Or do you mourn, at least somewhat, for the days of low-tech flipping pages in a hammock? Not every book is in digital format, and many newly published digital books have not gone through a quality filter (so they may not be GOOD books–they may, or they may not). Not everyone can afford one or more digital readers, and some people have visual infirmities that limit the use of the devices. And what happens when the EMP comes? Or power goes out and batteries die? (Especially in an outage due to natural disasters.) Or if a hacker group goes into Amazon’s system and recalls all the books? (I have wondered if they could do this ever since I saw Amazon take away books that had been sold . . . and I have noticed that the New Yorker issues get auto-deleted when the new issue comes out, even though you CAN back up the issues to your PC. So there’s someone else with control over your database of books.) Do you care whether a governmental entity can know everything you are reading? (They couldn’t see what you have on the bookshelves, but they could see what’s on your e-reader, theoretically, depending on what transpires in the near future.)
Libraries have been transformed from mazes stacked with books into places where you can rent a DVD movie or get music CDs, and they have 35 copies of whatever’s new and acclaimed (usually a thriller or murder-porn rally thing), while they throw out any classic that hasn’t been checked out in a year. No longer can my family say to me, “You don’t need to keep all those books, because you can always get another copy.” Not at a library. Not always at a bookstore. Soon, maybe nowhere. Whoever digitizes the content is a censor and a decider nowadays. They can skip stuff that they think is dated, irrelevant, or just boring. Then it goes away, and there’s no paper record to check. Good? Bad?
I would also like to point out that we often wildly lionize a famous person who leaves this world, but the bum who died in a back alley this morning and the unknown soldier who was blown up yesterday in service to his country were people just as important. Everyone has a mission in life and a purpose to accomplish. Some of us get big money and great success, and others never have a snowball’s chance to get anywhere. But we are all equal in the sight of the Universe. These others whose passing is not marked by many were JUST AS IMPORTANT as Mr. Jobs. Everyone loses sight of that while they’re posting all these wonderful reminiscences, but I like to point it out now and then. Let’s not let our celebrity culture permeate every sense to the point that we can’t see reality.
I don’t know. Even the people who disdain the complete dependence we now have on computing still use it and depend on it. It’s kind of scary, in a way. I mean . . . you see acoustic pianos given away for free when families go to digital keyboards. But it’s not the same experience at all, making music with a keyboard versus playing on a real grand piano. People throw away the “old technology” so blithely. Very few consider it any kind of loss to “upgrade.”
When I watch classic black-and-white films like “Casablanca” and “All About Eve,” movies like “It’s a Wonderful Life” and “Sullivan’s Travels,” I think about the average film that is made today. I don’t like the new ones as well as I like the old ones. I don’t see us having “upgraded,” in general. When I read older novels, I often find that I connect with the prose style and with the story better than I do with the newer ones like the vampire series and zombie mash-ups. Again, perhaps that’s just the sign of an old fogy. Or maybe it means that we’re throwing away a useful and classic part of our culture and turning to the murder/violence porn and mindless toilet humor that I see so often in new films, videogames, and television programs. The brains of the new generation may be different. They may need more stimulation, more flashing, more noise, less solitary contemplation, less depth of thought, less subtlety. Is this always good?
One reason I prefer a journal to a Facebook account update is that we can have a deeper discussion here. But is there really time for that? Do people want to devote that much time to reading stuff that is “tl;dr”? Is there merit in studying a large body of information in order to turn it into knowledge, an internal knowledge base, when you can look things up in 0.012 seconds on the ‘net? (Never mind that you can’t believe everything you read ANYWHERE, especially on the ‘net.) I have found that having an internal knowledge base (in other words, a brain like a deck of Trivial Pursuit/”Go To The Head Of The Class” game cards flying in formation) allows me to make connections (remember that James Burke series?) and make educated guesses that are often accurate, or pretty accurate. I have a database that’s more like an old card catalog than like an Oracle queryable set of tables: when I think about subject X, I often can connect it to event Y and subject Z the way that an old card catalog entry might have references to other books or would have cards for related books nearby, books I might run across to deepen my understanding or send me on another interesting tangent. I like being able to Google up who the eighteenth vice-president was, but then again I like to make connections using things that I already know about.
I suppose we need both. How long will both approaches stay around? I hope the old ways stick around for a while. Let’s not replace everything with an e-device just yet.