On the Fading Tail of the Technological Wave

Douglas Adams once wrote (in paraphrase) that any technology around when you were a kid has seemed to have always been there; technology developed when you were between 15 and 35 is new and amazing and you can probably make a career using it; and technology developed when you were 35 and over is against the natural order of things. And an awful lot of taken-for-granted technology has been developed since I passed that threshold 25 years ago. Cell phones were barely around, but smart phones are new and evil. Web 1.0, where specific people worked hard to get their voices out on the internet, was the norm, and Web 2.0 that lets any anonymous idiot spread conspiracy theories on comment boards has ruined public discourse. And so on. You get the picture.

I say this today because I’ve been trying to set up a second website through my WordPress account, and the online instructions are full of simple things like “using your WordPress aggregate management software, connect through your FTP client and modify your wp-config.php file…”

Please.

And it made me think that the ability to write software code in the 21st century is like the ability to read in the 15th… most people didn’t have it, and those that did became powerful. The rest of us remained serfs.

I also got invited today to participate in a podcast, which is kind of like radio so I approve of it. I’ll be happy to do it. But we’re going to connect via a software package called Zoom. <sigh> I’m increasingly resistant to new apps, not because the apps themselves are hard to learn or hard to use, but because it’s another account with another username and another password. Passwords used to be for getting into the boys’ treehouse; now I have to have a password to shop, or to bank, or to write, or to check my mail, or to talk with someone through my laptop microphone. And the software have dumb names. Snapchat, Wufoo, Zoom… what are we, six years old? Get off my lawn.

I’m writing all this (as well as all of my books and all of my client data analysis, everything I do professionally) on a 2012 MacBook Pro with OSX10.10.5 Yosemite; I’ve gotten past all the predatory cat OS versions, but I’m still working my way through California landscapes. I do all my work with five-year old versions of Microsoft Office products. There’s absolutely nothing I need to do that can’t be done on this machine. I don’t download movies or play video games, so I don’t need lots of processor speed or active memory; and I’ve still got 85% of my meager 500GB hard drive open. I back up all seven years of my data files every two weeks onto a flash drive, which takes about ten minutes. (Clouds are for shade, not data storage.)

I admire all of this technological change, though I’m really not interested in using much of it. But I recognize that the landscape is changing all around me, and every day brings another instance of the same question—do I participate, or do I ignore it and go on doing what I already know how to do?

Nora is writing a history of a 19th century family that saw their economic order disrupted over and over again, not because they did anything wrong, but because other political and technological changes from hundreds or thousands of miles away made their work obsolete. Spinning mills made Rebecca Morison’s home spinning less cost effective, and rendered Samuel Morison’s knowledge of building spinning wheels useless. Mulberry trees were planted in New England to grow silkworms in the 1830s… by the 1850s, French silk had flooded the US market. Northerners lost access to cotton cloth during the Civil War, so home spinning of wool and flax fiber became momentarily useful again, lost again permanently by the 1880s.

I grew up in a city that the first half of the 20th century built to strength, the second half tore to ruins. My hometown of 20,000 people lost 12,000 jobs in fifteen years, a generation of men and women who never learned the password to the future. Industry left them behind, as surely as Wufoo and ApplePay have ditched me.

The prophets of a brave new world
Captains of industry
Have visions grand and great designs
But none have room for me

They see a world where everyone
Is rich and smart and young
But if I live to see such things
Too late for me they come

from Todd Rundgren, “Honest Work”

It’s not just the tools that change, but the kinds of work that the tools enable. I blog instead of tweeting and instagramming, because I value a certain kind of writing, but I know that tweets and flash fiction are meaningful work. I love 19th century buildings because you can see the labor in every brick course and every carved cherub; 21st century buildings leave me cold at least in part because the labor is hidden away under the sleek, swooping skin. I like cash, because I like to count things, and because I like privacy; I don’t buy things online much because every time you press “Pay,” it weighs the same, and every trivial purchase is memorialized forever, likely to show up as a junk email in two, weeks offering some add-on purchase or a coupon luring me to a return visit.

We all find certain things to be native, other things that never fit. Our lives are all in negotiation, weighing then against now against next.