Friday, October 17, 2014

The Sky is Falling

The Sky is Falling . . .

First let me say that I realize that in every age the old folks have sat around muttering "The sky is falling. Damn kids, the sky is falling."  "Haul the fire inside the cave? Damn kids, the sky is falling." "Ride around in a wagon with no horse? Damn kids, the sky is falling!" "Elected Tricity? Damn kids, the sky is falling!" The Bomb! TSIF! Pollution! TSIF! Mary Lou Gewanna! TSIF! Global warming! TSIF! And yet somehow the human race has always muddled through. I must, however, call your attention to these large blue chunks that have been crashing to the ground in my world recently, and assert that there is actual cause for alarm.

I suppose I could trace it back to losing my cellphone.  I know, I know, we ALL lose our cellphones. At least once, if not several times, a day.  But this time it stayed lost. After a week of covert and overt searching, which included rifling the pockets of pants that have not fit for years, I declared the phone well and truly lost and set about replacing it. Rather than opting for the latest and greatest model that priced out somewhere north of 300 bucks, I opted for the $49.50 "replacement from b-stock.” Read: old phones that the young and monied had traded in, in exchange for the latest and greatest. The company rehabs the old phones and sends them out to guys like me. Well, after an exchange of maybe ten emails and a couple of "FAQ Letters From the Community," the phone now works, but all my saved contacts have been scattered out onto the solar wind, and are currently drifting past Uranus, or maybe mine.

About the same time that this was all going on my MacBook Pro began behaving strangely.  It had obviously channeled Hal from 2001: "I'm sorry, Robert. I'm afraid I can't do that" became its favorite saying, as it gleefully spun its multi-colored MacBall of Shame. Twice in as many days it flashed the dreaded Gray Screen of Death.  The problem is that when my computer dies, several hundred university students go without class. Despite their giddy feelings, I consider that a bad thing.  Hence, I took my Mac upstairs to the tech guys.  They huddled about and spoke geek speak in hushed tones. “Tomorrow," they concluded, and I went away.

The next day I was greeted with confident smiles. "All is well!" I was told, and I took my machine and left, comforted.  A couple of days later I was putting a PowerPoint presentation together for a video for my online class. "Print" I told my machine.

"I'm sorry, Robert. I'm afraid I can't do that." And the MacBall of Shame spun round and round.  

A quick drive into campus. Upstairs to the guru geeks. "Mutter, mutter. Aha! That's the problem!"  “Tonight,” they declared.  Again, I went away but not quite as comforted.  Later that night, after having been assured it was a "wicked fast machine," I took it home.  It was wicked fast. I finished the PowerPoint. "Save," I told my machine.

"I'm sorry, Robert. I'm afraid I can't do that." And the MacBall of Shame spun round and round.

I could go on, but it would only make me weep. Instead, I will ask you to play a little mind game that I play with my students. No tech required, not even a pencil and paper.  Think of the number of times your technology has told you in the last, oh, two days "I'm sorry. I'm afraid I can't do that." Email glitches, GPS runs you into a dead end, print fails, Netflix dies, batteries crash, anything. Think of that number.  Now multiply it by 214,942,000 - the 75 % of the US population, which the census bureau says is how many of us own a computer. (OK, I lied about "no tech." Pull the calculator up on your phone, tablet, or computer.)  Divide the number you get by 2, the number of days we considered, and the number you see on the screen is a very low estimate of the number of times, everyday, our various machines told us, as a nation, "I'm sorry. I'm afraid I can't do that."

Yet, we rush to make ourselves, our banking, our entertainment, our music, our art, our social interactions, our healthcare, our cars, our entire existence increasingly dependent upon this capricious web of screens and wires and machines. TSIF! TSIF! TSIF!

This is where I am supposed to say something comforting. Where I assert that the engineers will get it right, that governments will enact policies and mandate fail-safes that will address these big blue and cloud-marked chunks over which I continually stumble. This is where I should opine that Google or Apple or Facebook certainly will create an all-purpose “patch."

I would like to, but,

"I'm sorry, my friends. I'm afraid I can't do that."

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Inside Tech's Glass Cage

My wife and my ex- have only one thing in common.  Both are/were displeased with the amount of time I spend "on the computer."  My normal, and usually legitimate excuse is that being "on the computer" isn't really one thing.  Playing golf, for example, is one thing.  You swing clubs at a small white ball for several hours. I don't do that anymore for a variety of reasons, but primarily because as you grow older time becomes more precious.  I am simply no longer willing to spend 6 hours walking in a garden-like setting, were stopping to photograph the flowers is frowned upon.

But being "on the computer" is rarely one thing.  True, I work on the computer.  I write lectures on the computer, I design PowerPoint presentations for my classes on the computer, I communicate with my students, teaching assistants and colleagues on the computer. I also interface with the demands and opportunities of everyday life on the computer.  I pay bills, register the car, buy eBooks, watch movies and sports - basic "screen potato" type stuff.

But being on the computer is also creative space for me.  Much of my art has a digital component to it, either in the original creation or in "post-production" enhancement, printing or distribution. I am also now used to writing on a screen from "prosetry" like this:

Number 34
You’d think these midnight muses
Might occasionally acknowledge
Tomorrow’s obligations

Number 33
Though not a poet,
I might have been
If I had had less time.

To longer compositions like these blog posts.

So I am quite aware that I spend a good deal of time "on the computer."  But more than that, I am quite aware of the relationship that exists between the machine and I. [Having just double-checked the Internet to make sure it wasn't "the machine and me."]  And that relationship concerns me.

This week I have been eerily reminded of Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey: "I'm sorry, Dave.  I'm afraid I can't do that."  There are two levels of frustration.  First was a flurry of hardware issues - the gray screen of death descending.  A problem my gurus tracked - they think - to my having failed to install a "critical update" of Office for Mac. Then there were software and hardware compatibility issues - the Star Trek-like control deck in my classroom couldn't see my Mac laptop.  Something I had sort of planned for by mailing the lecture Powerpoint to my Yahoo email account so I was able to run the class from the built in PC.  The ClassTech people tracked that issue down to screen display issues that now have been - we think - resolved.  Then I went home to record video lectures for my class only to discover the screen display correction for the classroom was incompatible with the settings necessary for the Mediasite record system.  My Mediasite guru talked me through the necessary settings and now we have - we think - solved that issue. Then I spent a couple of hours on a couple of days trying to get all my TAs legal through Human Resources new KABA online 19th century time clock. I will pass over the incident with the DMV website and getting the car registration updated, and the snafu with Blue Cross And Blue Shield who emailed me a statement for a stranger - because those were not officially "work related." 

But finally, I was editing a class website using Moodle's [an online Learning Management System] WYSIWYG editor [What You See Is What You Get website editor] to try to post a list of names and emails for the class.  Moodle wanted to list them all with no spaces between the lines or with 4 spaces between each line.  I ventured into the HTML code behind the editor to try the corrections.  That is when Moodle said "I'm sorry, Robert. I'm afraid I can't do that." Well, not in so many words, but functionally it amounted to the same thing.

There are two problematic issues imbedded in this ongoing fiasco.  First, I felt a real sense of accomplishment every time my tech colleagues and I overcame the various ghosts in the machine and bent both hardware and software to my will.  It made it easier to accept Moodle/Hal's eventual assertion that it "couldn't do that."  After all, we had won most of the battles, and the Moodle gurus had forwarded a glitch report on to the Moodle Wizards behind the curtain. But second and less sanguine was the realization that I had spent more than 90% of my time "on the job as a university professor" doing tasks that had absolutely nothing to do with the intellectual task of teaching my students.  I had, instead, done mechanical work dedicated to getting words and pictures on a screen, mundane details necessary to even begin doing the "job I had signed up for": teaching.

This is technology's glass cage, the cage that so concerns me.  I can defend the time I spend "on the computer" as long as I control what the computer does for me, as long as I can bend it to my will, as long as it helps me do the things I desire to better and more efficiently.  More and more often it seems that I find myself bumping into the glass bars of this beautiful cage: "I'm sorry, Robert. I'm afraid I can't do that.  But I can help you do this instead, and look I can play music while you do it.  This is one of your favorite songs, right?  And maybe we should try this shade of yellow.  Isn't that nice? Yes, I thought you'd like it.  You used it last week in Photoshop.  .  .  ."


Thursday, January 30, 2014

Snow Day

A quick survey of images from states in the upper Midwest reveals how little snow we actually have. But this is what passes for deep winter in the South.  There are a couple of inches on the ground, the temperature is below freezing and will dip into the teens come nightfall.  And the university is closed!  Hence, I decided to make it a real "snow day."  You know, a Currier and Ives, Over The River and Through the Woods day, a Snowbound kind of day: “Announced by all the trumpets of the sky, Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields, Seems nowhere to alight:" 

But how, I asked myself, does a snow day play out in the 21st century?  It started, I decided, by staying in bed watching the snow outside - reading a physical book, a real book with pages and everything.  I meandered through a few chapters and then declared that hot chocolate was the next step, so I slipped out of bed leaving my wife still huddled under the covers.  Friends had given me some "sipping chocolate" for Christmas and I meticulously followed the heat, mix and whisk directions printed on the can.  The whisking took a long time, and as I whisked I thought about what I would do for the rest of the day.  Doing what I do for a living, teaching about technology and its impact on our lives, my first thought was make it a NO TECHNOLOGY DAY. Cut the cord, get off the computer. I have no logs to split, nor an ax, but you can see where I was leaning.

However, that idea quickly lost its appeal as I again thought about what I would actually do for the rest of the day.  I wanted to do some drawing, which I do on a large graphics tablet attached to my laptop. I also draw while listening to music or listening to audio books - which tend to flow through my iPad. The NO TECH day was quickly losing its appeal. Maybe just a little tech? But issues attach to  "little tech" as well. The problem was, again, Marley's Chains.  I have talked about Marley's Chains in the context of social networks like Facebook, Google+, LinkedIn, etc.  Once you "friend" someone, their friends and children and cats and goldfish come streaming onto your computer like the chains that poor Marley drags behind him into Scrooge's parlor.  In a broader sense, Marley's Chains threaten us every time we turn on our computer because there, next to Photoshop, lurks your email application with messages that pay no attention to the sanctity of a snow day - buy this, check on that, approve the other one.  And, of course they don't wait to be acknowledged - the "helpful apps" push themselves onto your screen. Want to listen to that book while you draw? Go ahead, but doing so puts you on iTunes, which, in addition to playing your book, will prompt you to take a "free" listen to the recent Grammy winners.  Like that? Wanna buy it?

That is when it struck me that the answer was "selective deconvergence." Huh?  Let me explain.  For a long time now communication scholars have been running on about "convergence culture."  Which means about the same thing as Marley's Chains - activities that used to be utilized as separate tools, separate media, have now "converged" onto single screens.  Our books, music and video sources, newspapers, etc., all "live" in the same place, on the same screen.  They pour in like Marley's Chains.  At first blush, it seems quite convenient. But there is an insidious side of convergence.  When the tools of creation are tightly intertwined with the avenues of consumption there is an uncomfortable degree of cross-pollination, even pollution.  "Like to listen to that book?" Amazon inquires, "Maybe you'll enjoy this."  "Bought those markers? Try these."

It will not go away. I doubt we will every untangle the Gordian Knot of the converged Internet, but perhaps we can tame the beast a bit.  I am going to try to complete my snow day divorced from the Internet.  I will not be able to avoid hearing the Siren songs of bleating emails, pushed news stories, etc.  But I will do my best to ignore them.  I am going to try to imagine that the world is, for a day, "unconverged." I will use my technology to pass the time more pleasurably, to have my technology do my bidding.  But when it tries to drag the Marley's Chains of its commercial inducements across my enjoyment I will simple "click away." It is, after all, a snow day.