Damn the Computers

I count myself amongst the cheering section for “Neo-Luddites*,” even though I’ve spent most of my life working in electronics in one capacity or another. In fact I probably would have been a maniac hacker as a teenager, except that a computer, such as the one I’m typing on, would have been twice the size of the Empire State Building and would have commanded the entire energy output of Niagra Falls just to light the filaments of its vacuum tubes. I had to content myself with being a ham-radio addict instead. From this you can gather my approximate age.

I’m to a point of what some author whom I’ve forgotten called “organismic disgust” with the computing world. Even though part of me finds my color notebook computer and Internet access nifty as hell, the conviction grows that this technology is not improving the quality of my life. I’ve dabbled with computers in a serious way for about fifteen years now, starting with a Tandy 100 laptop whose workings I learned inside and out. I designed a single-channel analog data acquisition system for it and marketed it for a few years. Things then were still simple enough that I could single-handedly cover all the bases, anticipate most of the problems, and deal with my customers personally if they needed technical support. Those were the good old days! A guy could still understand the whole machine and even design a non-sophisticated data interface that others could use without becoming bogged in expense and complexity.

What gripes me most about the present state of technology is my sense of feeling exploited by giant corporations who have more interest in the bottom line than anything else. With each innovation, the software and hardware become more complex. Each increase in processor speed is more than offset by the number of lines of code the processor must execute. The programs become more buggy the equipment works less reliably, and adequate technical support recedes in the sunset, becoming impossible to come by or prohibitively expensive. The rate at which software and hardware become obsolete accelerates continually. I can’t afford to keep up with it, and increasingly, I don’t WANT to afford to keep up with it.

I’ve thought it would be amusing to write a story in which, say, a woodworker is compelled to work with equipment as unreliable, complex, and generally inaccessible as most of our computers. Can you imagine turning on a sander, getting a message saying “General protection fault,” at which point the sanding disk flies off, and the whole thing self-destructs? Why do we put up with this nonsense from machinery which, for many of us, is just about as indispensable as a sander is to someone who does woodworking? The whole economy will shortly choke on computer gridlock. A frozen Web.

When I first upgraded (I question whether it was a step up now) from the Tandy 100 to an IBM-compatible PC, I was thrilled with all the things I could do with my computer. I acquired a word processor, paint program, CAD (computer-aided design) program, scanner, and a few zillion other gadgets. I was charmed with the prospect that I might earn some money doing desktop publishing for people in the island community where I live. But I found out rather quickly that your ability to compete, when it comes to doing work with “computing tools,” has as much to do with the fanciness of the tools you can afford and how well you understand the equipment, as it does with any native talents or skill you bring to the actual area of endeavor. I spent hours and hours and hours fussing with extended memory, clashing programs, incompatible file conventions, and all the rest. Then the latest upgrade would come along and I’d have to spend more hours mastering that and all the new incompatibilities which came with it. I was becoming a computer drone rather than getting any real work done. I really needed a computer department to keep the equipment operating so I’d have time to do some actual work myself.

In addition, for all the excitement of the great “tools,” it didn’t take me long to realize that no matter what computer “tool” you’re using, your interaction with paper is mediated by a mouse or keyboard and a video terminal. Boring. Whether you’re doing CAD, or painting, or writing – all day long the game is to sit there in the chair, hand on the mouse, eyes frying in the gleam of the cathode rays. I learned that in using a so-called “paint” program, the process I experience is completely alien to what I experience when using a brush, real paint and paper. Sure, you can change colors instantly, move things around, and on the newer programs, helped along by a digitizer pad, you can even do some things you might do with a physical brush. But new versions of paint programs come along every six months or so. Each one requires that you spend more time wrestling with its idiosyncracies and inadequacies. This process has nothing to do with painting; it’s computering! And it rapidly ceases to be fun OR exciting.

The beauty of learning real physical skills, like drafting, wood working, penmanship, or painting is that you’re not dependent on some complex program which becomes obsolete in six months, demanding that you waste more hours learning about the computer rather than honing your painting skills. Whatever skills I develop, painting, drafting, or woodworking is mine to keep as long as I live. They don’t require an unreliable machine for me to be able to practice them, and I don’t have to continually put out thousands of dollars to keep the equipment functioning and up-to-date. For a thousand dollars, I can paint for the next five years on wonderful handmade paper.

So, here I am, a person who was just as enchanted as anyone else with the capability of the computer, who gets a real charge out of using some of the computing tools, but who is growing increasingly angry and disenchanted just because the tools, while nifty, turn out in reality to have serious invisible strings attached. A morass of sticky spider web, in fact. It’s this anger which slowly pushes me into the ranks of the “neo-Luddites.” The technology makes the quality of my life dependent on the whims of Bill Gates, and I resent it. So I pick up a brush (which I still don’t use very skillfully) and gleefully holler, “Shove it, Bill!”

Nevertheless, I admit that I continue to use my word processor and like it. But I also do a lot of writing with a pen on paper, just because I like making marks; watching the letters form themselves at the end of my pen. I like the fact that I can carry a clip board and pad anywhere without worrying that someone will steal it, that I’ll destroy the hard drive full of my precious data, or that the batteries will run down. The paper is silent, lightweight, cheap, and will not become impossible to read in a few years because the equipment I write on it with has become obsolete. All I have to do is use permanent ink and decent paper, and somebody will probably, five hundred years from now be able to decipher my words. The physical act of writing is calming and meditative. Slow, you say? That’s precisely the point. What’s the hurry?

I’ve read considerable controversy about computers being a threat or disconnecting us from the natural world. Unfortunately, I must agree that a threat exists. If indeed computers themselves are not a threat, then our own irresistible attraction to them is. The statement that computers “disconnect us from the natural world,” I take that to mean that they force us to spend long hours constrained to activity for which our evolution does not suit us; which dis-integrates us from that physical world which begat us. To name one, witness the crippling of wrists due to carpel tunnel syndrome brought about by improperly designed keyboards. I myself fell victim to the unnaturalness of computing: I sat for a week working intensively on a computer program for many hours a day. Ultimately my body protested, a muscle in my pelvis went into spasm and I spent a week on my belly in excruciating pain. I was semi-incapacitated for another three weeks, and only after two months did I get back to normal. Well, the biggest threat was the fool who did all the sitting without paying attention to the messages coming from his body. However the fool wouldn’t have been forced into that position if the technology hadn’t made the demand that he do the extended sitting.

But physical threat is the least of the problem. I fear that mental, social and developmental effects of computer preoccupation far outweigh the physical damage. After several hours work with a computer I find myself feeling dead and disconnected. On the Internet, one hour of “surfing” is about my limit. Longer than that and I become possessed by a kind of uneasy alienation which, when I walk out into the yard and look about me, reminds of how I feel when I’ve just awakened from an over extended daytime nap.

If an hour of Internet exposure turns me into a mole, what does it do to a kindergartner? (Washington State has allocated money to make the Internet available to school children that young!) What insidious effect of excessive computer involvement will be wrought upon young children whose proper physical and mental development depends on interaction (play!) with each other and contact with real physical THINGS? Their learning of motor coordination and intelligence require that contact. The non-tactile sights and sounds of the abstraction we call The Internet won’t do it. Kids need contact with the same nature from which our species evolved. They need to climb, wrestle, stalk and argue. The introduction of computers into early school grades is a threat to the developmental requirements of youngsters, and little more than cynical commercial exploitation. We’re already suffering the consequence of a couple generations of children who have lived their lives in front of television sets. I shudder to think what will happen when we add more hours parked before video monitors to their lives.

If my assertions seem to stretch a point about the negative effects of computers on the social lives of humans, consider this: A few months ago I heard an interview on National Public Radio with a man who earned his living teaching people to socialize; to relate to each other face to face. Many of his clients were heavy computer users who had lost confidence in their real-life social skills, if they ever had them at all. That such things can happen to those who overindulge themselves in computing constitutes another symptom of the serious threat implied by this “innocuous tool” we’re discussing.

The threat of computers and other runaway technology is heightened by the fact that it is so non-obvious, so subtle, and so all-pervasive. The damage occurs over long periods of time and, like the frog brought to a slow boil, we who live now a breakneck pace are even less sensitive to such long-term poisoning than we once might have been. We slowly cook never knowing that someone has turned up the fire. It’s now likely that the only way to counter whatever damage is occurring is to buck the stream, learn to pay attention to what our bodies and brains are whispering to us in the background. The “Neo-Luddites” might be accused of exaggeration or extremism, but if that’s what it takes to make us wake up and pay attention, then more power to them.

As a parting shot I want to call attention to one subtlety I’ve noticed, that being how Internet access has exacerbated my personal sense of drowning in obsolescence. Once plugged into the network, then the network demands that I keep pace or be dropped from the online “community.” Such is the peril of membership in a “community” which depends on electronic networking. Our contact with each other is mediated by “tools” designed, sold, and controlled by distant corporations along with the demands of economy and masses of people. Web sites constantly appear which require some new “plug-in” or software upgrade in order to view the latest in media glitz. These sites conveniently provide links to the suppliers of the required software, who in turn happily snap up your credit card number- that is provided you have the latest browser with the requisite encryption software to safely send them the account number. Pay your bucks: keep up or drop out.

With increasing frequency I stall, ignoring the temptation to acquire the plugins, tools and toys. I simply won’t look at that graphic or listen to that sound. Happily, I live in a flesh-and-blood community of people who will still be here after the power goes off or some computer Ebola virus fragments Windows 9x into bleeding shards of code. If I need sound, I’ll open a window and delight myself these spring evenings with the lusty din of young frogs. Why waste time installing buggy code, paying for it, then soon being forced to repeat the whole aggravating process once again? Let the gullible masses flood on by, stranding me in the cranky backwater company of die-hard “Luddite” writers like Wendell Berry, Stephen Talbott, and Clifford Stoll, who have long inhabited these parts. They probably still remember how to saw a log or tell a joke. This is where I belong. It feels like home.

*The Luddites were a group who sabotaged industrial machinery at the beginning of the 19th century protesting loss of jobs. The focus of “Neo-Luddites” is mostly computers which are having a similarly devastating effect on many traditional trades and professions.