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Mindful & Mystic
Taste of Irony
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Levels of Consciousness

Who’s in Control Here?

My first car, when I was nineteen, was a Ford Model A, and it was born two years after I was. It burned oil so fast I used to get free used oil from my local service station. Its top speed on a level road was 55 miles per hour, if I adjusted the spark advance just right. For starting, I had to set the spark back a little until it ran. When the spark plugs got fouled, which of course they did frequently, I could retard the spark a little to keep the engine running more or less smoothly. I didn’t mind having to make the adjustments. I had just completed a motor machinist mate course in the Coast Guard, and felt I knew what it took to run internal combustion engines.

My next car was an even older Hudson , and on that I had to adjust the flow of air through the radiator, since it didn’t have an automatic thermostat. It was a fine automobile, even though it had a defective vacuum-powered fuel pump, and I had to stop every eight miles to fill the reservoir under the hood from a gas can I kept in the back of the car. (That container simply replaced the oil can I had kept in my Ford.)

There was little in either car that was mysterious. Like working with a slightly balky horse, one had to stay in charge of the situation.

Thirty years later, I owned my first computer, which I built from a kit. That, I admit, was a bit mysterious. Perhaps it was because I hadn’t studied computers in school. (Almost nobody did in those days.) Programming it, however, was straightforward, if somewhat complicated. (Our common complaint in those days was, “Why does it always do what I tell it to do, instead of what I want it to do?”) Even computers were pretty dumb. My ego got a big boost when the machine did what I wanted it to do. I even developed enough confidence to write instruction manuals for computers.

Another thirty years later (just last month), I bought my latest computer, with the technical-sounding title of “Presario XP.” Connecting it to my monitor, printer, keyboard and mouse, and—absolutely necessary—to the Internet, I turned it on and watched it do all kinds of things that I had no hand in except to provide my name and address when it requested them. There weren’t even any discs to insert in order to set it up. It knew more about me than I did about it. Eventually, it announced that it was ready for use. Its manufacturer, Compaq, which is owned by Hewlett-Packard, had been notified of its installation in my home, and the XP operating system had notified its own parent, Microsoft, that I was the legitimate owner. (Nobody else could install a copy of it.)

In the next few days, I managed to adjust the way my monitor looked to something more familiar than the fancy XP displays that it seemed to prefer. That much it allowed me. Of course, I delighted in the remarkable increase in the speed of its operation. I installed the latest photo processing software, as well as some small utility programs I had used on my old machine. It was a little like moving from my old Model A Ford to a new Camero. Hot Dawg!

A brief honeymoon. My new computer did not like all the CD-ROMs I had made to store files and photographs from my old computer. One of the promises I had understood about new computers was that the old data files would always be readable on newer machines. On the other hand, I had watched over the past twenty years or so as computers changed, growing ever more complex yet ever more speedy and powerful. Floppy disks were small magnetic cards on which one could transfer or copy files to keep from clogging the memory banks in the machines themselves. Then there were two different floppy disks, the newer ones being smaller, faster and holding more data. Not long after that, computer manufacturers stopped equipping their machines with the older disk drives. The ongoing user had to quickly make copies of old disks onto new disks to keep the information available. Then came CD-ROMs, holding hundreds of times more data. These, they told us, were designed not to fade and lose their data like floppy disks, and conceivably could last a hundred years. Now, I had a stack of CD-ROMs, holding tens of thousands of pages of necessary information—my valuable essays, innumerable letters and photographs that I had “digitized” to preserve them while the ravages of time faded the original negatives and prints. I had even copied all the family photographs I could get my hands on, scanning them into the computer and “saving” them to codes of ones and zeros. I told my wife that no, we could not get rid of my old computer because my new one could not rescue my treasures from the little plastic discs. So my new computer hasn’t replaced, entirely, my old one. I now have two that I use nearly every day.

When I traded my Model A for my Hudson , I didn’t have to think about what the old car could do that the new one couldn’t. It was simply, “So long old Paint, and thanks to the new owner for the $15.”

There was a saying, back in my days of writing instructions on how to operate computers, “When all else fails, read the instructions.”  It was a sarcastic reference to the fact that most people seem to hate to read, especially the “enlightening” material that we labored to provide for them. The irony wasn’t lost on me that my career bordered on the useless. Wonder how many other people work forty hours a week on things that the world could do very well without?

Now I’m wondering if my role as “owner and operator” of a computer is becoming just as irrelevant. This new machine not only knows more than I do, it has a mind of its own about what it will and won’t do. At this moment I’m sitting in front of the monitor, typing—I think—these words, which appear on the screen. In a few minutes I’ll click on a little image of a printer, and my essay will be converted to black marks on a piece of paper.

Am I truly doing all this? Or is my computer simply letting me think I am? At any moment, it may begin instructing me on what it wants me to do next.

Will I be able to resist?

 

December 24, 2003

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