Monday, February 7, 2011

Computer Hell

I dread setting up a new computer. I will cling to the old computer for as long as possible. Even when, as with an old car, one thing after another begins to fail and visits to the repair shop grow increasingly frequent. I cannot stand the idea of letting go. “You may risk losing your hard drive,” the technicians tell me, “and everything on it.” Novels, letters, reviews, prose poems, essays, diatribes, rants, grants, laments and jeremiads, all lost, lost irretrievably, gone forever. “Do you want to risk that?”

Of course not. But won’t there be symptoms? Vomiting and diarrhea? Bloating? Blackouts? Whining? High pitched bowel sounds? Uncontrollable sobbing in the middle of the night?

Yes, there may be symptoms. But there also may be nothing. No symptoms at all. It will just die. Wheeze. Give up the breath. And go blank.

Or, you may get whacked with a virus, or some form of malware, for which your computer is too slow, too obsolescent to defend against. “We can work on your computer," say the technicians, "add more memory, some fans, a slightly upgraded security system, but one way or another, you are doomed. It simply is not worth it to work on a computer this old.”

“This old?” I cry with incredulity. “It’s only eleven. It’s still a child.”

And the technicians laugh. “Eleven is old, my friend. Your computer is ready for the Smithsonian.”

Capitalism thrives on obsolescence. The quicker something becomes obsolescent, the quicker the consumer is out the door to go buy another product. Spend more money. Computers, in other words, are capitalism’s best friend.

I am slow to admit defeat. But the time came when our old computer was simply not performing the tasks we required. Vitally important things, like watching YouTube videos of the Beatles and Rolling Stones. Trips down memory lane. YouTube is my umbilicus to the past. Lose YouTube, I lose my past. The Kinks. Count Five. Sam and Dave.

And so we went shopping for a new computer.

There is nothing in life as demanding and arduous as setting up a new computer. War, maybe. War is pretty bad. But setting up a new computer is at least as maddening as trying to convince a Tea Party fanatic that the govmint they so despise is the same benevolent institution providing them with their Social Security and Medicare checks.

The twisted logic of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland is not nearly as convoluted and bewildering as the process involved in getting a computer to work.

Kafka would shake his head with a mixture of jealousy, wonder, and simple awe.

The tangle of cords alone is enough to give anyone a heart attack. All the connections. Doodads. Terminals. Ports. But on top of the jungle of hardware are all the acronyms and jargon: DSL, BMP, DLL, DSL, DTD, DMA, FLOPS, GPU, OLAP, MPEG, OCR. Nor does it help to find out what these initials actually stand for: Bitmap, Dynamic Link Library, Digital Subscriber Line (this one turned out to be important), Document Type Definition, Direct Memory Access, Floating Point Operations Per Second, Graphics Processing Unit, Online Analytical Processing, Moving Picture Experts Group, Optical Character Recognition. And so on. This is not a language I understand. It is as foreign to me as Kirghiz, or Rajasthani.

Nor do the diagrams and symbols help. Quite the contrary. They are as mystifying as the symbols on the dashboard of an alien spaceship.

It became quickly apparent that I was out of my league. I managed to get the tower up and running (hurray!) and after finally discovering that there were no buttons on the monitor, that it operated by touch, the symbols of which were on the side of the monitor and were virtually invisible, the screen came on. But the speakers were not putting out any sound and I still had no idea how to set the printer up. It did not have a wire, other than the power cord. How did it connect to the computer? Roberta handed me a CD. “What do I do with this?” I asked. “I don’t know,” she responded.

The next morning I called the technical support crew at Staples, where we had purchased our equipment. This was a Saturday. Alex said he would be available in the afternoon. This came as a huge relief. Alex was affable, understanding, and very quick to hurdle all the obstacles I had encountered, the biggest of which was Speakeasy, our Internet server. Speakeasy requires reregistration when you set up a new computer. It was such a joy to hand Alex the telephone as soon as the tech support person at Speakeasy began riddling me with questions about our router, as if I had just graduated from M.I.T.

The really illuminating aspect to this saga came in the interval between bringing the old computer in and waiting for the arrival of the new computer, a period of four days. We discovered that we did not miss having a computer in the house. We enjoyed the quiet. We enjoyed being free of checking our email every half hour, clicking away like mice in a behavioral experiment hitting levers and buttons for a pellet of food. We had more time to read our books. We felt disconnected from a world that had gone completely insane with electronic gadgetry.

And I actually enjoyed visiting the library in order to get online and check our email and take a peek at my blog. I did not particularly enjoy sitting elbow to elbow with people and the lack of privacy, or using a keyboard after someone had just sneezed on it, but I did like the feeling of being able to have my cake and eat it, too. I liked being able to access the World Wide Web without being stuck in it. I liked the feeling I got when I logged out, got up, grabbed my hat, and left. I enjoyed the walk home. And, once home, I liked the feeling of detachment. A home, after all, is a haven, not a panel in Dilbert.

Had those four days expanded into four weeks, however, I am sure I would have felt differently. I am sure I would have longed to have a computer in our house again. Access to the Internet just inches away from the couch. French radio. YouTube. Wikipedia. Blogs. Poetry and rants. Maps and malamutes and mandolins. Paraboloids nomographs and tidytips.

The world.

Or at least a virtual facsimile of the world. One in which the past, the present, and the future are all mingled in a screen of pixels.

A youthful Mick Jagger singing “Under My Thumb.”

Janis Joplin singing “Ball And Chain” at the Monterrey Pop Festival in 1967.


Caught in a web.

And aren’t we all, one way or another, caught in a web?

Freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose.


Harald Striepe said...

Should have bought a Mac - you could have handled that...

Anonymous said...

you make me feel better about my career choice. I was worried this stuff was becoming too easy for everyone, at least there's still people like you

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