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Technology and Its Discontents

[whitespace] illustration In the buzzing, beeping technophilic swarm, an increasingly vocal group of rebel holdouts still chooses to live the unplugged life. But can the rest of us stand it?

By Stephen Kessler



IS THERE ANYONE ELSE in the United States, besides me and Ted Kaczynski, who doesn't own a computer and doesn't want one; who has no TV set and doesn't miss it; who's never received or sent email and doesn't wish to; and who thinks that cellular telephones should be used only by publicly designated drug dealers?

I have a sneaking suspicion, based on an unscientific survey of friends and acquaintances both wired to and disconnected from the dominant electronic paradigm, that despite the 26 million computers at last count connected to the Internet, there are still a few of us out here with no intention of plugging in. Even more remarkably, I suspect there may be a technophile or two uneasy with their own virtual obsessions, compulsions and addictions to an increasingly sticky web of cyberdependencies.

Luckily the information dirt road remains open for those who choose it. Here's where I make my stand for the unplugged life.

Some of My Machines

As a born media freak, long hooked on radio and every kind of print, what worries me most about the World Wide Web is that, were I to venture into its limitlessness, I might not be able to find my way out. I don't want to be a mesmerized geek exploring cyberspace and its wonders at the expense of the more immediate sensory presence of my environment. I don't want to be enslaved by those alien powers of seduction constantly tempting us with words and images that pretend to tell us about the world while insidiously abstracting us from our actual lived lives.

But I'm no Luddite, much less a Unabomber. I have no objection to anyone's plunging into the bottomless universe of their computer like some tetherless astronaut floating, drunkenly awe-struck, through the cosmos. Even without a television or cell phone or laptop or microwave or fax or modem near at hand, I enjoy the use of numerous machines that make my life much easier than if I pretended to live in some pure paleolithic utopia of hunting and grunting for the essentials of survival.

I own two cars and three domestic telephones--one of them cordless so I can putter about the house while gossiping with friends, doing professional business or dutifully checking in with my mother. My kitchen is equipped with a 14-speed blender, essential for making smoothies and gazpacho. The living room sports a record player, tape deck and receiver, and of course I have a couple of portable radios for backup during power outages. I even have a photocopier for convenient reproduction of my writings.

Beyond these concessions to machinery, I've somehow accumulated some dozen manual portable typewriters picked up at yard sales and flea markets over the years. And that doesn't include the one I'm using now, a vintage 1974 Adler which has served me faithfully through thousands of pages of poems, essays, fictions, articles, translations and countless letters since I bought it new from a German salesman/technician who told me--truthfully, it turns out--that it was "the best machine on the market."

So don't try to tell me I'm anti-technology.

E-Mail vs. P-Mail

In 1996 there was a superb exhibit at the New York Public Library called "The Hand of the Poet," which displayed original documents and manuscripts--poems, notebooks, letters--of many of America's best-known bards. Organized chronologically, the show's final items were immaculately laser-printed texts by some younger contemporaries. It was impossible to ignore the aesthetic contrast between these perfectly antiseptic artifacts and the more irregular, messy, uniquely personal ones of those earlier writers who had to make do with pencils and pens and manual typers. The individuality of those older papers, with all their unevenness and variation, struck me as infinitely more interesting, soulful and historically seductive than their computerized counterparts.

Many of my own postal correspondents are thoroughly up to date, sending me handsomely laserized letters which, to tell the truth, are easier to read than the scribbles of other friends who still write by hand. In either case there's something sensuously satisfying about receiving an envelope in my rustic mailbox, often adorned with a beautiful commemorative stamp, and feeling the texture of my correspondent's paper, savoring the rhythm of their sentences, experiencing the intimacy and leisure of that slow-motion form of private conversation the postal service makes possible.

Other friends who used to write me letters no longer have time. If only I had email, they assure me, they'd be much better at keeping in touch, as they do with all the other friends and relations constantly shooting messages back and forth by means of their beloved computers. I concede that, like the telephone, email facilitates a certain kind of functional contact that in its way is as intimate as letter-writing. It also facilitates, like third-class mail, a flood of junk--ads, solicitations, commercial harassments of all kinds.

The decline of the letter is a cultural and personal loss which no amount of electronic communication can replace. And I know that even the most avid email aficionados, in their heart of hearts, enjoy the atavistic thrill of receiving mail the old-fashioned way.

Like reading books and taking walks and growing one's own tomatoes, writing letters will remain, for those of us who do it, an antidote to the urgent rush of compulsive immediacy and techno-depersonalized zapping to which we all are increasingly subjected. At the end of even the most flawlessly mechanized document, there's nothing like the individual touch of a handwritten signature.

Unplanned Obsolescence

Remember planned obsolescence? That was the 1950s term for the built-in limited life span of the newest, say, refrigerator or labor-saving dishwasher essential to the modern kitchen. Soon enough the most up-to-date appliance would need to be replaced by the latest improvement, thus guaranteeing the manufacturers a steady supply of fresh customers for their products.

The computer age has accelerated this insidious principle to the point where the latest "upgrade" you've just purchased for your system will be practically obsolete by the time you get it connected. Technophiles are constantly shelling out money for tools soon doomed to be outdated.

The creative geniuses of the industry are naturally having lots of fun, and making lots of money, in the endless race to build faster and better and more efficient machines--and who can blame them, with the stakes so high and their kids' college tuitions forever escalating?

Like other kinds of toys and luxuries, the newest and quickest and coolest hardware and software not only provide operational advantages to their owners but quickly become symbols of a certain prestige. Anyone who buys into staying abreast of the changes of techno-innovation is driven to invest in whatever comes next, lest they be rendered obsolete themselves. It's a vicious circus whose ringmasters are the brilliant tycoons and engineers and designers of every new thing, and whose weeping clowns and dancing mechanical animals are everyone else who wants to be part of the parade.

As I type these words on my outdated timeless Adler I have the satisfaction of not only seeing its steel bars leap and strike the paper with that classical clattering sound, but knowing that it has outlasted generations of dead computers and will continue to serve my writerly needs as long as I keep it cleaned and oiled and am able to find new ribbons.

The money I save on upgrades I can invest in postage stamps.

Techno-evangelism

Typically it happens like this: I'm at a party, a dinner, an art opening or a poetry reading, and someone I've just met, on finding that I'm a writer, asks me if I use the Internet. No, I reply, as a matter of fact I don't even have a computer.

Incredulous, my interlocutor proceeds to inform me how much time I can save and how much easier my life will be if I convert to this or that machine or program which they've found so essential to their existence.

I've heard this pitch so many times I can practically recite it myself, and the more I hear it the more annoying it is. Imagine listening to religious or political fanatics trying to persuade you to join their cult; it may be interesting at first, and even informative, but after a while their haranguing becomes a nuisance.

I have no doubt that writing book-length manuscripts can be facilitated by the use of computers. I know that certain useful information can be found in a matter of minutes on the World Wide Web. Even television can at times bear images and messages that are interesting in themselves and stimulating to the mind and imagination.

But why should it matter to anyone else whether I watch TV or use a computer? Why should my deliberately slow-lane habits--which have managed to serve my needs thus far--be cause for concern to acquaintances so eager to drag me along with them into the all-consuming future? Do they fear for me that I may lose my soul or burn in some kind of unplugged hell if I fail to keep pace with advances that seem to me to pose no real advantage? Will some software program magically improve my writing?

People who feel compelled to convert the unenlightened to their own superior instruments, please stop. Imagine yourself evangelized by someone who sincerely believes they are doing you a favor, like those Jehovah's Witnesses who show up on your doorstep with their pamphlets when you least want to see them, or the telemarketers who guarantee they can save you money if you'll just sign up for their service, or the fans of some horrible band who insist on playing you their latest CD, loud. Those of us voluntarily living without the great improvements you're urging upon us with the earnestness of faith may not in fact need to be saved.

Writers' Nightmares

A much-published writer friend of mine, like me long accustomed to using a typewriter (albeit an electric one), was given by her brother-in-law a gift that he assured her would greatly improve her professional efficiency, making revision easier, increasing her productivity, and so on. The new computer, once she mastered it, would prove to be a godsend.

My friend reported recently that, quite the contrary, the machine made her writing life virtually hell for a whole year while she struggled to gain control of its commands. Though she's gotten the hang of it now, and writes me letters from time to time, the texts are still riddled with the same kinds of errors and typographical eccentricities that so charmingly characterized her previous writings. All the computer has done for her, as far as I can tell, is to make it possible to lose the texts of entire books at the mis-push of a button.

Several other hard-working writers I know have lost the use of their hands and arms to carpal-tunnel syndrome. They have been disabled by the very medium that promised to make them more productive. They suffer excruciating pains that streak through their arms whenever they move a muscle. It seems such a sadly ironic fate for people whose most strenuous physical activity was to wiggle their fingers over a keyboard whose feathery action was supposed to lighten their lives.

Among the more notable victims of this condition is novelist William Vollman, widely touted as one of the hottest and longest-winded fiction writers around. Washington Post columnist David Streitfeld reports in a recent piece on Vollman that the writer's parents gave him for his 38th birthday a computer with a Dragon Naturally Speaking program. He would speak into a microphone and the words would appear on screen--in theory anyway. Grateful for the birthday present, Vollman spoke to the computer: "Thanks, Mom and Dad." Through some crypto-Freudian miracle of micro-electronics the Speaking Dragon translated: "This man is dead."

When I read stories like this, or hear from suffering friends how their health has been wrecked by computer keyboards--not to mention the unknown long-term effects of staring at a screen all day--I'm glad that whatever problems my wrists may experience will most likely be the result of splitting kindling or chopping garlic.

The Speed of Time

These days almost anyone in any kind of business needs to computerize in order to compete. Speed is instrumental to success in many fields, and the proven advantages of all sorts of electronic improvements are impossible to argue with. Even a low-tech or no-tech type like me would surely abandon my personal reservations if my livelihood depended on being wired.

As it is, in my writing life I'm more and more often encountering editors who want material submitted on disk, and so in those cases I hire out typing to an associate fittingly equipped. (In a paradoxical twist of unplugged rural lifestyles, the person who'll transcribe this essay lives "off the grid," her computer powered by photovoltaic cells.)

But while faxes and email and Web sites and telephones are vital to doing business, in the privacy of nonprofessional life how important is it really to have things done this very minute? Has patience been flattened on the highway to infohell? The pace of the race for instant results has turned many people into hyperactive attention-deficit-disordered automatons.

The demand for electronic instantaneity has invaded nearly everything we do and led to a kind of techno-illogical overkill--like slicing a stick of butter with a chainsaw. Some people don't even pause long enough to question what this ceaseless rush may be doing to the quality of their lives, or to the condition of their psyches.

The idea of taking one's time, of waiting, of savoring the useless moment, of letting life unfold in a leisurely rhythm, of taking time out, of slowing down--all crucial to a sense of groundedness and stability--feels more and more impossible and irrelevant even as it grows more necessary to the maintenance of mental health.

I confess to wearing a watch and to being rather compulsive about arriving places on time and meeting deadlines. But it's also important to be in time, as one might be in love, fully immersed in the richness of stillness as the rest of the world flips by.

Infosickness

The biggest hoax of the information age is the notion that people are well-informed. Granted, the quantity of sheer data assaulting us nonstop is unprecedented. But most of this so-called information is what media critic David Shenk calls (in his book of the same title) "data smog," a toxic atmosphere of annoying factoids, gossip, statistics, news, opinions, advertising, entertainment and other ambient noise muddling our consciousness--as in those bars where the background music is turned up so loud you can't have a conversation without yelling, which, adding injury to insult, gives you a headache and a sore throat.

This full-tilt constant cacophony, multiplied exponentially by 24-hour access to almost anything you could ever want to know, is enough to make people physically sick with the stress of processing so much stuff. Like a blindingly bright-lit all-night mega-mall, our informational marketplace dazzles us with far more merchandise than anyone could use in a lifetime. And the very quantity of available data makes it that much more difficult to sort out what matters from what merely pollutes the mind.

Having no TV set and no computer greatly relieves the infostress of oversaturation. Each time I turn off a radio I find the ensuing silence a balm for my abused brain. At the risk of missing some morsel of common knowledge, one can even close a magazine and quietly set it aside with a sigh of relief.

Some books--especially certain works of poetry and fiction--can serve as aesthetic antidotes to the inanities and angst-inducing excesses of our dynamically exhausting culture. And the contemplation of nonverbal art, like painting or music--or of nature, if you can find any--may be another helpful treatment for the dizzying and disgusting symptoms of too-much-information.

Fewer Options

Prevailing opinion seems to be that in any given situation the more options we have, the better. This is what America is all about, the freedom to be discriminating consumers, liberated to choose among a zillion products and services competing for our attention. Perhaps the shrinking attention span of most of the population has as much to do with the exasperating range of choices we have--among long-distance companies, credit cards, brands of designer coffee, automobiles, sneakers, religions--as it does with the editing rhythms of MTV.

One redeeming thing about natural disasters is that they narrow one's options, instantly stripping away the extraneous. The power out, a whole lot else goes with it. Camped in the back yard feeling each shuddering aftershock, or sitting in the dark listening to El Niño pound the bejesus out of everything, or deciding which armload of possessions to save as you prepare to flee the approaching wildfire--difficult as these situations may be, such fewer-options experiences can clarify awareness more quickly and completely than the speediest search engine.

Even without disaster, the choice to have fewer choices is itself an option, and one I choose to exercise whenever I have the chance. And I find it somewhat consoling to know that even if the juice never comes back on, my home pages are on paper and can be read by natural light.

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From the January 8-14, 1998 issue of Metro.

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