Posted by: Harold Knight | 08/26/2010

The (De)vices Make the Man, or The Gods Are just and of our pleasant (vices). . .

Longfellow Elementary

Longfellow Elementary

A couple nights ago Matt Richtel said on Terry Gross’s “Fresh Air” on National Public Radio,

I don’t want to overwhelm you with numbers. . .  But I believe it’s three times the amount of information we consumed in 1960. . . people sit at their desks. . . they check something like 40 websites a day. They will switch programs sitting at a desk something like 36 times an hour. It’s a kind of an onslaught of information coming today (1).

Switch programs sitting at a desk 36 times an hour.

A friend refuses to listen to the radio in his car. He says when he is driving no one can access him, it’s his time alone. When he told me I thought, “He’s not really alone. Traffic! I hope it’s not his down time.” He bought an iPhone. I’ve seen him look to see who might be calling him when his iPhone rang while he was driving.

So much for down time.

Naked people have no influence

Naked people have no influence

Can a person who isn’t sure what is meant by “program” switch programs 36 times in an hour? I don’t know a program from an application, a platform, a browser, a client, or a network.

I’m used to not knowing how things work. I play the organ. I know how a tracker organ works (an organ that uses electricity ONLY to run the blower that provides the wind that makes the pipes sound; everything else is physical, mechanical). I have only vague ideas how an electro pneumatic organ works (a pipe organ in which electrically-operated magnets somehow open the channels the wind passes through to make the pipes sound). With digital organs, I am clueless. The keys and stop knobs look like organs. Other than that they are not even the same species.

The experience of using this damned computer and having no clue what’s going on here except I move my fingers and see words on the screen and push a key and they’re saved so the next time I want to look at it, it’s there—and I can move it around, for example from my desktop to this blog where anyone in the world can read it—is not completely foreign to me, but it’s still, after twenty-two years, “a holy mystery,” as Sister Mary Charles, may she rest in peace, “and ought to remain such,” would have said.

I’m a morning person (it’s 6 AM now). My computer is an evening person. Many days when I first power it up and try to log on, it takes ten minutes to an hour before it wakes up. It freezes, it refuses to open Firefox (it never acted this way until my friend from IT installed Firefox), it refuses to let me work in a Word document until I’ve turned it off three or four times (usually at the switch while it’s “not responding” to something I asked it to do and won’t let me do anything) and booted it up again.

And then suddenly it begins working perfectly and gives me no more trouble all day.

If you’ve read about hypergraphia (the page above) you can imagine how the computer’s reticence (that is, obdurate refusal) to cooperate affects me at five in the morning. I am awake because I must write. I mean must write. Before anything else happens. Some days in place of anything else happening most of the day. This is not a matter of choice, a matter of cleaning the kitchen or reading yesterday’s mail while I wait for this idiotic machine to wake itself up. And I’m so accustomed to writing here that I can’t abide the slowness of doing it by hand with a pencil. I don’t have an hour to wait.

As I listened to Matt Richtel, I was driving a car controlled mostly by computers; my cell phone was beside me on the seat; I was listening to the digital (computer driven) radio; I was going home from a meeting in a room cooled by air conditioning controlled by computer; I intended to watch a program on my computerized high definition TV; my digital clock was telling me what time it was; this computer was charging while I was away; the internet was somehow retrieving and storing the twenty or so email messages I had received while I was gone.

Matt Richtel poses a question to which I already know the answer. He said, “What is the line right now when we go from a kind of technology nourishment to a kind of stepping backwards, to a kind of distraction — where instead of informing us, [technology] distracts us.” I could have told him, “There’s growing evidence that that line is closer than we’ve imagined or acknowledged,” but he didn’t ask me (3).

The line drew perilously close yesterday morning when I arrived at the computer lab where I teach writing classes. The computers are not working. My classes and I cannot access the (program, platform, client, network—you name it, I can’t) we use to share, evaluate, and store their work.

My devices do not make me who I am. Unfortunately, however, for most of my friends, “Electronic  devices DO make the man. [People without them] have little or no influence on society” (3). Mark Twain’s quip was about clothes, but it is apropos of iPods, iPhones, and Kindles.

My devices do not make me who I am. But I wonder how much of who I am has become so intertwined with them that I no longer exist. I wrote on Facebook last night that my mind, my brain, and my body were having difficulty existing in the same space yesterday. That’s true today. And often.

The first time I questioned my own existence was in Mrs. Hall’s second grade class. I remember the physical setting vividly. Of course. The same moment repeated itself absolutely the same half dozen times. Precisely. Three days later. Mrs. Hall’s desk was in the front left corner of the room. Our wrought-iron-with-hard-varnished-pine-top desks, bolted to 1×4 wooden boards, were splayed out diagonally across the room like pews in an Akron-plan Methodist Church.

One day in class I became aware that my mind and my brain had somehow separated, and both were detached from my body. Terrified, I lay my head on my desk and rubbed my skull to figure out if I, in fact, remained in one piece or if everyone could see I’d drifted apart.

Reality is a problem for me. Some call it irresponsibility. Some call it flakiness. My landlord calls it late fees. My neurologist calls it temporal lobe epilepsy. I call it terrifying or a damned nuisance, depending on the day. Some day I will finish the philosophical treatise I’ve been writing for half a century on the reality of human existence. My existence, at any rate.

Until then, I pose the question. All these electronic (vices). Do they make us more centered, more capable of understanding reality, more in touch with the world? Or, perhaps—as they do me—they separate mind from brain, sense from body. Make it more difficult to be “real.”

The gods are just, and of our pleasant vices
Make instruments to plague us

(1) Richtel, Matt. Interview by Terry Gross. Fresh Air. National Public Radio. KERA, Dallas, 24 Aug. 2010. Web. 26 Aug. 2010. <>.
(2) ibid.
(3) Twain, Mark. More Maxims of Mark. Ed. by Merle Johnson. New York: privately printed. 1927. The original quip is, of course, “Clothes make the man. Naked people have little or not influence on society.”
(4) Shakespeare, William. King Lear. Act V, Scene 3 (Edgar).


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