Sunday, May 22, 2016

The Human Side of Technology

End and power buttons of laptop
In my previous post, I looked at how humans have become mechanical in their thinking and behavior, partly initiating and jump-starting technology while at the same time being influenced and shaped by technology itself in the process. A day after my post, I tried to turn on my computer of six years and to my surprise, nothing happened. Nothing whatsoever.

This was the first time I was facing such a situation. Previously, my laptop had had its particular moods and needed a couple of attempts to initiate, but this time around, I got no response no matter how many times I tried. 

I ended up trying everything in the book or rather any somewhat reasonable remedy or solution I could get my fingertips on within cyber sphere (taking out the battery, removing the additional charge by pressing the power button for a determinate number of times etc.) and only stopped short of really wacky ideas of disassembling and then reassembling the computer or of putting the battery in the refrigerator or the even crazier and more dangerous option of putting the battery in the oven.

All my measures were to no avail. I felt saddened and disappointed by the whole situation. My theory was that my old computer was sore with me because of neglect. I have recently acquired a newer model because the old one had started failing me with its somewhat shoddy Internet connection, which had become more pronounced ever since I had upgraded to Windows 10. It was a reliable but aging machine with parts that were not best suited for the modern times. I believe that five years in technological time represent decades in human lives. Many changes occur in that time frame.

But I am not one to replace older models just like that. I am more loyal and sentimental in that respect. I tend to keep objects, anywhere from toys I used to play with as a child (I don’t play with them anymore) to photos of my female friends and of a couple of ex-girlfriends among them (objects to which my wife now and then objects). But everything to me has sentimental value, and especially something as fundamental and essential as laptops.

If we think of it, nowadays we spend so much time with our computers, in some cases even more time than with humans, i.e. friends and family. The first thing I turn on in the morning is my computer; it is what I use for work, for pleasure, for writing and even for listening to music and watching movies.

It is where I store my photos and ideas and it is my tool and gateway of knowledge. There is definitely a sense of gratitude I feel towards my computer for enabling me to do so much, and it has revolutionized and even shaped my process of writing, perhaps even inspiring it in many ways, not unlike the different models and styles of typewriters in Naked Lunch (the Cronenberg movie since I have not read the book yet).

It comes down to the assumption or rather my personal belief that objects, and even more so sophisticated devices of technology have a certain set of peculiarities or characteristics and fall only somewhat short of autonomy and personhood, at least for the time being.

It comes then as no surprise that we at times give our cars, phones or computers nicknames, that we occasionally talk to them or curse them. I am talking of personal experience again and in true Carlos Castaneda fashion have asked computers and printers for their support in critical situations and they have often (but not always) complied and pulled through.   

We humanize our technology, especially when we make statements like my computer does not seem to like me today alongside the assumption that they purposely sabotage our endeavors, or worse, that our computer has died (do they have an afterlife after all?). We imbue them with life that it may or may not have on its own.

We develop a relationship with them as we spend so much time in their company; we get to know their idiosyncrasies and personal touches and, as a result, they become endearing and, moreover, unique to us. Not to mention our constant and continuous dependence on them in pretty much any aspect of our daily lives.

To return to my computer, I think that it was a case of the blues and jealousy towards the newly acquired one. But I had felt thankful for all the support and help over the years. I had passed on my old laptop to my son and felt doubly bad that it had stopped working because I had let down my son as well in that regard. In fact, with a somewhat heavy heart, I even went to look for a new computer for him and would have bought him one if he had not asked for a rather expensive one with touchscreen. I had to postpone that particular purchase and enlist the future aid of Santa.

I returned home thinking about what to do with the old companion of mine. Taking it to the repair shop would cost me half a fortune and would not be worth it all things considered. Adding just a little bit of money on top of it I could buy a new computer that would last for a longer time.

Hence I was ready to shelve my old no more functioning laptop in a corner and keep it as a keepsake. Perhaps I was dreaming big that it would find itself in a museum exhibit one day as one of my cherished possessions and writing tool. As such it would achieve immortality and a bit of fame, assuming of course, I had made it big.

These thoughts of life, death and immortal fame circled through my head as I looked upon the remains of my old laptop. And then I thought, what the hell, let’s try to turn it on for one last time for old times’ sake; one last attempt before it is taken to the dark and damp storage room of souvenirs. And lo and behold – it turned on!

This was a miracle! I know others will most likely disagree with me, but it felt like one for me. It felt like the resurrection of an old friend I had already given up on. And here it was! I must add that in my confidence or rather foolishness, I had not transferred all my files and pictures onto my new computer or storage device, and had fretted over losing them or not having access to them ever again.

So I shouted a silent hallelujah and was thrilled, but also perplexed about the behavior of my technological friend. I talked to a computer science instructor about this situation and he seemed to agree with me that there is so much we still do not know about technology and that yes, these devices appear to have a mind of their own. 

This should not come as a surprise. How many times do devices not work when you need them the most! I can count numerous times where DVD players would not play a perfectly fine DVD or when I was denied access to an otherwise healthy virus-free file in an important moment. Or my favorite case, when you have midterm exams and the printer jams in an openly defiant and irreversible manner and you have to call an expert for immediate help.

This is why I have come to mistrust technology, especially as an educator. I always have a Plan B for those days when I depend on the support of technology. I purposely expect things not to work out so that I am not caught off guard. I do my exam printing (and in fact all my necessary printing) days before. I even prepare a speech for my students of what to say when technology fails me once again in the heat of the moment.

So technology and me have some bones to pick. Although I must say that over time I have warmed up to technology and have seen its human side, the same way I have seen our own mechanical side. It seems that there is indeed a meeting point half-way. As an addendum, my laptop still refuses to start unless you push the power button when holding the screen at a 45 degree angle. That’s how my computer prefers it to be done, and so it shall be.

So yes, in moments of despair, when your car or computer won’t start or the printer won’t print, those moments of unexpected unpleasant surprise, touch the object in question in a gentle manner, and use some soothing words. Yes, talk to it. It cannot hurt. You have nothing to lose.

Others may chuckle at your behavior or they may take you for a fool. They may think that they are immune against such mishaps or viruses that may befall the best of them in a world where viruses do not only affect and devastate humans but their technological devices as well. Yes, let them chuckle because they do not know that technology has a human side as well. 

No comments: