Chip Chat

Does anyone else wonder about how inextricably bound our lives have become to the dictates of the high-tech world?  Let’s face it. Our futures in many ways seem to be increasingly embedded in the latest chip from Silicon Valley. Before we know it, we’ll have chips in our clothes, chips in our brains, chips under our arms and between our toes!  Perhaps it is time for us to seriously consider this orgiastic and perilous preoccupation with computers that is running rampant across media and consumer consciousness.

It is one thing to use technology to judiciously improve the quality of our lives. It’s quite another to passively accept it as the monstrosity that this specious “revolution” seems to be  breeding. The implicit suggestion that we are about to relinquish our intelligence to the evisceration of virtually all existential human choice is the nexus of our era. The hubris in such a scenario outdoes, by far, the arrogance surrounding the invincibility of the Titanic, and is certain to lead to a far greater tragedy, if it hasn’t already.

Apparently, we haven’t yet learned our lessons from case of the private automobile, another problematic technology that promises the world and delivers, all too often, the moon. Like the automobile, the personal computer is spawning gargantuan problems in the name of efficiency and experience while generating incipient, global ecological dilemmas, as we are just awakening to the fact that there is no where to put the ever more obsolete and increasing supply of ‘has been’ mother boards, hard drives and processors. So, despite being touted as a device that is essential to surviving in the modern world…a conduit to a better, more relaxing, more expansive kind of consciousness …empowering and accessible to its users…it is, in reality, far from that utopian figment of imaginary life.

It is interesting that we are now known as ‘users,’and all too easy to become caught in a frenetic frenzy to keep up with the latest software, hardware, scanners and manners. It’s ridiculous enough to try to comprehend a basic word processing program. For instance, I have before me a 367 page 8½ x 11" booklet called “Mastering the Essentials of Word”. Nearly 400 pages of “essentials?” Maybe I don’t know what “essential” means. Frankly, I can barely lift the thing, no less understand it.

But this is nothing compared to what happens once we get into cyberspace. Out there, all problems are compounded umpteen times by problematic updates, viral infestation, spyware, adware, ISP servers that go south, browsers that are “corrupted” and most of all, software that is so hastily put together as to be flawed to the point of being useless. Of course, all of us hound dogs can’t wait to get our hands on it so as to “keep up”—you know, with ‘Jones,’or whomever. Meanwhile, our virtual monopoly (need I elaborate) goes laughing to the bank, inflating its stock profiles at the expense of our frustration with their convoluted programs and systems.

Meanwhile “tech support” can be a veritable “long day’s journey into night.” and everybody has a different story as to why it takes so long to get a straight, coherent answer.

Oh sure, you can try mulling your way through the chaos…that is if you want to spend $2.50/minute or $35 per “incident,” (another interesting use of language) getting a live, sentient voice to guide you through the bewildering maze of possible solutions to your digital dilemma. But half the time these so-called experts don’t know jack either. They’re flailing away like the rest of us, often hoping that the ‘users’ will enlighten them. “Let us know if that works for you,” one tech-support fellow signed his otherwise incomprehensible e-mail solution to a problem I mailed in. “ Oh, there’s a  tricky way around that one,” chirped some gal in customer relations...responding to a another repeated snag...this time with the “server.” ‘Server?’ …….hmmmm, no tips for this automaton!

Let me give you an idea of what’s going on out there. Just today, as of  3 p.m., there were well over 1000 new messages in just 15 hours from various newsgroup participants lost in the labyrinth of some techies’ fantasy that he (or she) is actually creating something intelligible. Questions such as: “Does Netscape archive Netscape?”....... “How to get a .nab file to import V 4.61......Lost E-Mail Help!!!...Help!!!... “Messenger trash empties automatically”......and so forth and so on.

We keep hearing how the latest technologies will “revolutionize” our lives. In the “New Digital Galaxy,” according to Newsweek, the “Smart House” of the future will be packed with appliances, talking to each other through the Internet. The toaster will pop your breakfast bread while the dishwasher upgrades its cycles to accommodate the new detergent you just bought as you read the morning paper on the digital mirror in the bathroom while shaving!  Well, at least we’ll have the machines talking to the machines. As for the rest of us…….?

Remember the films from the 1939 World’s Fair depicting the 1960’s blessed with moving sidewalks, free-flowing traffic, all electronically controlled? Last I looked, you’re lucky to make it across a major boulevard with your arms and legs intact if you’re a pedestrian…and fortunate to be moving anywhere in the vicinity of the speed limit if you’re a motorist…here and now, 65 years later.

I would venture a conservative guess that perhaps fifty percent of the discussion that takes place via computers is actually about how the damn things are supposed to work! But in the wondrous world of bits and chips, the medium has upended what the whole thing should be about, which is content!  Ever walk into even the most progressive offices? Everyone’s glued to the monitor...watching the world whirl around in the vortex of cyberspace…almost suggesting that the next ‘download’ or ‘upgrade’ will somehow reverse the greenhouse effect and relieve us of our ecological and social problems! All this talk about the information highway leading us into a new era—well, it’s true. It’s leading us into a new era all right: one of compounded confusion, wasted time and needless anxiety.

The computer, and particularly the Internet, are, to a significant extent, public networks. In certain situations they can do extraordinary things. But like utilities, they have become an essential part of modern life, and like utilities, they need to be highly regulated. Deregulation of the phone companies, airlines, gas and electricity has brought nothing but more nuisance fees, higher prices, circuitous restrictions, and general confusion (not to mention the ubiquitous scams) into our daily lives. We’re bombarded with ads and bills that you need a college graduate degree to understand! But of all the utilities, the communication network most needs to be pared down and  kept intelligible. According to Linda Sax of the Associated Press, even college professors are so stressed by the endless upgrades and complexities of the systems that they are opting out of the high-tech rat race.

Along with its wondrous ability to facilitate the dissemination of information, modern technology has spawned a class of cyber-lords who all too often take refuge in the techno-towers of their increasingly arcane language. These new priests of power exacerbate the chasm between the ‘users’ and the designers by launching overloaded programs with bells and whistles that may raise their status and boost their egos in the race to outdo each other and induce more sales, but have little bearing on the real needs of the consumer. And may I be so bold as to suggest that, for the most part, our real need is to spend less time contorting over enigmatic and problematic programs and more time using the product to actually enhance our lives, and the life of the earth itself.

As we move into the twenty-first century, let’s hope we can find a way to hone our communication skills without surrendering our willpower to the robotic mirage of infallibility that the latest, greatest chip appears to promise. I seem to recall an admonitory motif from the dynamic days of the late 1960’s that the environment sustaining this world is going to hell. Last I looked, it’s still well on its way!



12/14/05 Marc Winokur (AKA: Marc Twang)



P.O. Box 9409/ Berkeley, Ca., 94709  Tel: 510-967-4722



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