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."

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