Orphaned Computers & Game Systems

Vol. II, Issue 9    April 1999

When Does Efficiency Become Irrelevant?

The Internet, Portable Devices and Their Cultural Implications

by Chris Federico

The Internet is, if you think about it, quite an amazing thing. It's the first simultaneously multimillion-participant entity in an interactive sense, and you can help to construct this growing, metamorphosing mammoth no matter who you are. All you need is the equipment: some rather inexpensive machinery, in fact. But it can be done. It's also making the world smaller and smaller. This is what humans do with their technology, and it's simultaneously marvelous and frightening. We make facts, materials and media instantly accessible to ourselves and each other, and we can meet new people halfway around the world, drawing ourselves together like an unexpected globewide peace summit. And we can still be war-like with each other about petty things.

What's especially bewildering about the Internet, considering the points above, is that it doesn't actually exist. What we "surf" around (groan) is actually just a bunch of zeroes and ones whizzing through telephone lines; there's nothing static, no huge computer somewhere representing THE INTERNET BASE or anything. What we call the Internet is actually more of a widely accepted series of telecommunication protocols than a tangible body. It's also the most organic, shifting, consistently growing thing to become popular the world over.

Sure, there are major ways of accessing all of these zeroes and ones, this worldwide network. But this prominence is based on shrewd business and foresighted marketing. America Online or the Microsoft Network didn't invent the Web any more than CompuServe or Prodigy invented the idea of special-interest bulletin boards. They're just two of the manifold ways of diving into the Internet, much like Explorer and Navigator are just two of the nearly infinite windows through which to see and use it. Even the Worldwide Web doesn't encompass everything on the Internet; only, at the moment, a big chunk of it.

Your medium doesn't matter, then. Returning to the car analogy, your local freeway doesn't offer separate roads depending on the type of car you're driving. We can all get to the same zeroes and ones, and we can all add to them, and what this enormous, breathing, interconnected, nonexistent web of people's creative and industrial spills represents, no matter how you reach it, is a shrinking not only of the distance between you and a bit of information, or you and another part of the world, but also of the effort required to do previously manual functions.

This makes the Net an excellent model for the entire electronics industry as it has now come to exist: Previously non-electronic tasks have been made much easier and more expedient by crossing over into bits and bytes. Telecommunicating is only part of it; writing something, designing something and learning something have become computer-based activities for millions of people. They're more instantly attainable accomplishments than ever. Like the shrinking world, this is both terrific and disconcerting.

Add a laptop computer into the equation, and we have portable ease with which to do all of these things. We'll all soon be plugged into each other, immediately available from anywhere. Laptops get smaller and smaller (have you ever seen the palm-top computer called the Psion?), and they'll even eventually replace pagers and whatnot. This constant-availability likelihood is both an attractive and an annoying prospect. I mean, sure, it will make things easier, but it will take the mystery and (for lack of a better word) romance out of meeting new people, or at least give it an entirely different kind of excitement.

I used to sit down and write letters to friends. I like writing. I like fooling with language. It's fun for me. But I realized that to get most people to write back, I was going to have to allow my recipients to bypass the physicality of replying. I was going to have to purge each of them of the chore of handwriting, finding an envelope, sticking a stamp on it and walking to the mailbox. So I obtained an e-mail address.

After a couple of years of these facilities for instantaneous communication, I myself have found it increasingly arduous to write using my hand. This is coming from a guy who (voluntarily) spent his childhood with pens and notebook paper. Most of the letters that I type nowadays, even for people to whom I'm just going to hand the pages, are created on a word processor. Ditto for ideas for new projects that I could just take a few minutes to jot down. This is mainly because it's possible to lose a piece of paper, whereas a file saved on a hard disk and backup disk can always be re-summoned.

There's been secured a fusion between my brain and fingers that makes the thoughts flow without the supposed burden of hand movement, especially at a fast typing speed. There's less time for reflection between written words, and less time for rhetorical and structural planning -- but then, the word processor has a DELETE key.

Someone outfitted with a laptop computer containing a modem and word processor has taken the incidental part of his work out of tons of things. A positive angle on this is that it might encourage kids to write. It's not as much of a chore now, especially if you add the "playing with a toy" nature of electronics for most of us. The task of physically turning thoughts into words will be further alleviated by the upcoming mass advent of these new voice-recognition programs (such as Dragon's Naturally Speaking for PCs). All of this human effort-truncation is definitely where we're headed on a widespread basis. The pro side of this has been made obvious; but what about the down side?

I'll start on that cheerful prospect with an illustrative example concerning this newsletter. I'm typing this article in Excellence!, a word-processing application that runs quickly and smoothly on my Amiga. Once I open the program that I use to typeset this newsletter, Pagestream, I can import this text into the pre-set columns, because Pagestream recognizes Excellence! files. I don't even have to convert the text to ASCII, the every-computer-knows-it code for the alphabet, etc. Text saved as an ASCII file (i.e. with .TXT as the extension on its name) can be read by any computer, no matter which it was written on, provided that the Disk Operating Systems -- DOSs -- are friendly with each other, or have been forced into a friendship with extra utilities.

Now, for all I know, Adam's writing an article himself at the moment. If he is, he's most likely using his IBM laptop, typing in Microsoft's Word. If this is the case, he'll save his work as an ASCII file on a 3 1/2" disk, which he'll simply hand over to me so that I can load it into Excellence!. I'll then save it as an Excellence! file instead of an ASCII file, so that I can import it into Pagestream as usual.

I could name several other examples, but the point is that our creative outgrowths are composed of text that is fully transportable, no matter what application it's typed in or what's used to read it. Likewise for e-mails that your friends send, wishing you a happy birthday -- or, for that matter, images, downloaded off a website, that you think your girlfriend might like. You can view them using any paint program, if they're .JPG files, .GIFs or etc. or etc. It brings up the question of treasuring each other's thoughts and sentiments. The words we put together become less valuable -- disposable, even.

It also poses the risk of making us perceive each other (in the abstract, anyway) as files or addresses. Being able to communicate with another person was, at one time, very special: a long-distance call, a car trip, a long letter, a poem. Now we can access each other instantly. Our deepest feelings can be saved or deleted. They can even be renamed! They're just more files, along with the "cute pictures" found online, the game shortcuts and everything else. I'm not saying that taking trips to visit people will be a thing of the past, but with the arrival of video phones, it won't be quite as necessary -- or special.

We're already numbers to the government, folks. We're already file names to the corporations that we continue, for reasons that few people are self-aware about, to patronize. Let's try to retain some semblance of endearment and personality. Let's be happy about what we're achieving, but careful as well. As long as we're aware of every technological step we're taking, staying skeptical of advertising and remaining detached enough -- and reliant enough on our own built-in computers -- to know the difference between advantageous inventions and cold, superfluous pseudo-toys that render us subhuman and exist just so someone else makes a buck. Are we smart enough to remain aloof to our own devices? Well, how about this: Are you? -- CF

[Having read this article for the first time in years, as we're currently proofreading and re-formatting back issues of the newsletter for easier online reading, I've felt compelled to add an update from the perspective of thirteen years later. -- CF 2/21/12]

I'd like to draw a rather arbitrary thought-doodle, in order to expand outward and paint the bigger picture that I'm frightened of, on behalf of my species. I don't write a web log. My reluctance to combine the two terms into one word in the popular manner -- "blog" -- is due to its being yet another in a long line of spelling errors and abbreviations that have flourished in place of what I once naively hoped for from computer users: the penchant for learning how to write better, in order to take advantage of this relatively new many-to-many communication paradigm, this massive Internet entity (and the would-be rapist of ceaseless advertising that it's become).

The reason I've never written one is that it seems like a waste of time to let anyone except for myself, much less complete strangers, know how I'm feeling. Has our culture really become so reliant on approval, acceptance and edited, public versions of its people? It also strikes me as pathetic that folks who are strangers and near-strangers to each other might actually be interested in each other's workaday thoughts, routine activities and small talk; so I certainly balk at the new step backward represented by people merely shooting the shit with each other about the dull trivia of their lives on "social networking" sites. To quote Mr. Carlin, people have been "bought off in silence by toys and gizmos."

Because I love old video games and write fiction, I understand that there's plenty of use in spending one's time in his own combo-deluxe fantasy world. The news, for instance, is all over the place, even if one doesn't watch television. They force it into your peripheral vision while you're checking your e-mail. I resist; it's ludicrous. Everything is made to seem equally important: foreign affairs, actors' marriages, scientific discoveries and sports mistakes. I see that all of the little would-be presidents are going to play their please-pick-me sandbox games again. Has it been four years already? Well, I'll be damned -- it hasn't.

But the network knows. The website knows. It knows you'll tune in. It knows what you've looked at and what you've bought. It knows that you'll believe most of what you see on that box of light in your living room, that other one on your desk, or that little thing that used to be a phone -- that conduit to an edited version of your loosely defined circle of friends that you can't pull your eyes from for two minutes.

The masters of these screens have been given massive control over your brain by you. They know that their tricks have worked: Don't just market products to the viewers and users, but market an entire lifestyle. Keep 'em docile and ignorant with merhcandise they don't really need; alcohol and other drugs; religion; vacuous "celebrity" tidbits that mislead them into thinking that others' lives are more interesting than their own; and those goofy "reality" shows, which reassert time and again that you are always being judged -- according to others' critera. So you'd better buy this, this and this, and make yourself better. Change yourself. And just trust us. We'll control things for you. No worries, mating addicts.

Keep 'em distracted and downright frightened, believing that they absolutely must keep viewing the news, to find out each night what they should be looking out for...even though none of it actually ever winds up affecting their lives, apart from the self-imposed stress.

Just keep in mind that you always have a choice, no matter how many toys you surround yourself with. We're not completely lost until we can't unplug them anymore. -- CF