Archive for the ‘technology’ Category

Time is on our side

March 11, 2018

I met Jean my last year in undergrad.  A core group were taking both the Virginia Woolf and the honors literary criticism seminars, so in the natural way young people do (and older people don’t), we fell in together.

Jean’s mind moves like a computer except she’s working with one or two more dimensions, making her mental loops fluid and fascinating.  Add to this her urban upbringing and her spot-on taste, and even a myopic magoo like me was intimidated.  After we graduated, that she’d been biding her time awaiting her reunion with better company was obvious.  We stayed in touch mostly due to my persistent letter-writing, until I found what I thought were my own people, ex-husband-to-be included.

Fast-forward some twenty odd years, and I’m wondering if I can find her on the internet, a do-hickey that was still in its university swaddling clothes when we’d last signed off.  And there she was.  Reconnecting with her was one of the shining lights of a 2017 where fog enshrouded and eroded much of what I’d thought was happening (aka, my reality).

Besides the advantage of the internet, we now also had cheaper long distance, so we were able to catch up in some small measure.  My lack of discernible progress in the material world ceased to embarrass me when she shared her own dissatisfactions.  We began to share strategies and insights, dream interpretations, youtube links, and photos.  As other friends had dropped away, retrieving Jean from the past was a timely gift.

The distance and difference between us, however, remained.  She had jumped from San Francisco to NYC to LA to Paris to Austin and back to the Bay Area, while my wanderings had taken me to places like Southern Utah, Yellowstone, New Mexico, and the Northern Neck of Virginia.  I don’t think she could conceive of why I would chose to live in these spots.  Helping me sort out my vision for the future, she offered a provocative comment:  “I think you’re avoiding something  because you think you’ll get contaminated by it.”  The assessment sounded right to me, but she thought I’d done the calculations wrong.

I was taking time to ponder the merits of this critique when she sent me a link.  “Great job for you,” she e-mailed.  The title did sound intriguing:  “Narrative strategist.”

Since I’d welcomed Jean’s earlier commands, like the latest version of What Color Is Your Parachute, as good structuring exercises, I read through the description with as much open-mindedness as I could muster, no easy task after the fifth sentence which touted serving clients like Facebook and Google and other “global change-makers.”

Eventually, despite my sympathetic willingness to imagine myself as more affluent and much much hipper and busier, even a cursory look at the job showed how I wouldn’t fit.  I was not only a “luddite” but proud to be so, and I was about as far down the line as anyone could be from their imagined candidate who was “passionate about disruptive technology.”

Passionate about disruptive technology?!  A storyteller?!  Would Homer be passionate about disruptive technology?  George Eliot?  Tolstoy?  I might be an “inherent optimist, with faith in the future despite the immense challenges of our time” and possess the “ability to process complex stacks of information without getting lost down a rabbit hole” as they phrase it, but I’d rather put my intellectual juice into conversations on how disruptive technology affects our ability to summon resonant metaphors and strategies for how to counteract it than into pretending it’s enhancing our lives.

Basically, the small start up wants to “on-board” someone to use stories to sell shit or to justify shit.  To convince people that shit doesn’t smell like shit because there isa beautiful story that connects us all to shit or whatever the fuck they need to do to make money so they can keep up their aesthetically and spiritually multi-hued new agey lifestyle in Sonoma county.  One of the bulleted “capabilities” for the position was “Maturity – you must have an active contemplative practice.”

During this moment, as I sat slackjawed, probing my disinterest in stepping up into the metropolitan fast-paced future Jean was envisioning for me, a few other “tells” passed in front of my eyes.  First, a Guinness beer ad that suspiciously sounded as if it were narrated by Alan Cumming, that deliciously gay man with a gorgeous Scottish accent.  Over images of all manner of folk connecting over a pint of frothing ale, the ad tells us that, in our desire to cozy up to friends and alcohol, we’re all alike deep down.  Okay, fine, I like beer too, and Cumming is hot regardless of his sexual preference.   All good.  But what if the challenge were to de-weaponize Amazon with a compelling story?

Then I stumbled across an article detailing what certain behaviors convey about a person revealed that long e-mail messages show neediness.  Well, yeah, that’s me, I conceded.  Needy.  Look at how long this blog post is.  And guess what?  NO ONE READS THEM.  After the shame the stupid content managers had slimed me with dribbled away, there remained a flicker of anger.  Yeah, I’m fucking needy, I wanted to shout.  I need people to pay attention; I need people to think for themselves.  I need people to understand how their day job is connected to the rest of the world.  My bad!

Then another article, which makes 3 and certifies this as a fairy-tale,  began with this quotation

We cannot be careful enough in refusing to act as splitters (i.e., like the Nazi doctors) or in refusing to live a split life in that sense.  And yet, in many circumstances, we cannot avoid acting as economic men and women of our time, performing certain professions and thus maiming our hearts.

— Ivan Illich In Conversation (David Cayley, editor)

I had a wild hair of a thought using a picture of the stories I was currently consuming as part of a job application.  An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States; Cheyenne Autumn; Killers of The Flower Moon:  The Osage Murders and The Birth of the FBI; Pillar of Fire: American in the King Years 1963-1965; The Magic Mountain.  Which of these stories, I imagined asking coyly, might they ask me to draw upon to craft a narrative strategy for Facebook or, say, Energy Transfer Partners?

I suspect that the e-mail I received from Jean in response to my “thanks but no thanks” signals our friendship has shifted on to a back burner if not into cold storage.  This time, however, despite not yet finding my tribe, I’m less hurt.  She’s given me much to think about, even if it’s an awareness of where I don’t want my life to go and why.  And I hope when we connect again I’ll be able to report my progress and she’ll be able to share hers.  The stories we share will be complicated ones, cobbled together after we’ve done the hard work to chisel out and stay close to what’s most important to us.  I’ll drink to that!


National Novel Writing Month

November 5, 2015

Traffic on the east-west highway that crossed the mountains was picking up for the commuter hour. The Blue Ridge chain of the Appalachians presented the first significant elevation west of the coast, but its elevations were just practice for the steeper grades of the Alleghanies and the Cumberlands. Their modest proportions, however, had managed to keep the valleys of the Piedmont and the Shenandoah surprisingly separated. Even Ava, who considered herself adventurous, especially during her grad student years, had lived on the eastern side of the Blue Ridge on and off for 25 years, and was still embarrassed by her feeble explanation for why she didn’t know more about the Shenandoah: “I live in Charlottesville.”

Forty miles south one could traverse the range at Afton on I-64 and thirty miles north SR 211 took drivers from Rappahannock County down into Luray. When the park was established in the 1930s, all the other switchbacked dirt roads that had been leading locals up and over the mountains for over a century were closed to public traffic. They’d made a disastrous reappearance in the past few years on gps, however. Ava got a perverse kick out of chastising visitors for relying on satellite data.

“What’s wrong with a map?” she would ask once they finished their woeful tale of how their gps had sent them an hour off course. “You’re old enough to know better,” she’d tell the retirees. To the young people she’d unfold a map of Shenandoah’s 200,000 acres and point to where they were. “Study this,” she’d say. “There’ll be a test later.” Usually they shook their heads, took their scolding, and laughed.

One woman had fought especially hard for its validity. “I don’t do maps,” she countered with an adolescent whine that set Ava’s teeth on edge. Ava explained that its misinformation was the reason the woman had ended up at an entrance station thirty miles south of where she’d intended to enter, but in her eyes, that was no reason to condemn the device. “There’s no valid address for this park anywhere on the website.” If she’d been five years old, she would have performed a stomp to punctuate her frustration. To Ava, the point seemed an especially ridiculous one to cling to given that the girl wanted to camp in the park’s back country. “You’d better learn to read a map,” she advised, “because you’re not getting cell service in the back country.”

Unfortunately for the aggrieved woman, who’d spent a considerable amount of her money on tattoos, an edgy haircut, and the latest in smartphone technology, venturing out to Shenandoah National Park on a three-day weekend was not going to be the transcendent experience that watching Reese Witherspoon had led her to believe. Drawing Ava, the tough love park ranger, was just one more experience that was souring her dewy-eyed fantasy.

“I’m trying to help you,” Ava told her, “But frankly, I don’t care if this permit isn’t filled out correctly. And I won’t care either when the Search and Rescue operation finds your scattered bones.”

It wasn’t that Ava hadn’t known that much of the population relied on smartphones and their apps. She’d simply thought that she’d see less of it in the park. But people came barreling up the mountain and knocked on the door to its wilderness with their pockets and cars fully wired. It was more unusual to see a family chatting companionably than to see at least one parent and all the kids staring into their phones, laptops, or a screen replaying a Disney dvd.

What she did – or should – know was that there was no way one park ranger was going to change their opinions on the best way to navigate the park, let alone the world. Still, she wasn’t responsible for their dropped cell signal or scrambled coordinates, so when the world presented her with her teachable moment, she invariably ran with it. Her lesson was that nature was unpredictable, beautiful, and pitiless.  When visitors whined about the fogged in mountain, she proclaimed it a “good day for mushrooms;” when they asked her advice on which direction had the best views, she answered with an obfuscating “yes;” and when they asked if the autumn foliage was beautiful, she told them to look up at the trees and trust that they had the tools to answer the question themselves. If she could push back their glib assumption that the natural world had solely been designed for them by just half an inch, she felt, she would have created a space for the forest to exist.

A Luddite states the obvious

October 14, 2015

From Todd Kilman’s review of “Steve Jobs:  The Man in the Machine” for The Washingtonian

The serious artist and the successful businessman could not be more fundamentally different in their aims and approaches. The businessman endeavors to give us what we want, devoting hours upon hours to researching the various shifts in the marketplace and spending great gobs of money in the process. The serious artist, heeding an inner dictate, gives us what we don’t want—disturbing us, shaking us from our complacency, waking us up to the truth before our eyes.

Yes, the differences are obvious, and yes, we constantly need to be reminded of them.  Framing Steve Jobs as an artist erases the subversive power of art.   What Jobs and other post-industrial entrepreneurs offered isn’t a new way of seeing.  Their devices have merely advanced a deeper dive into the consumer cycle that delivers experience quicker, faster, and shinier.  But what is the experience being delivered by a smart-phone, a gps device, a tablet?  It’s one mediated by what an internet site decides to provide, information designed to sell something, to take something from you be, it money or some less tangible energy.  When we spend large tracts of time peering at the world through a tiny screen, eventually, when we come upon a panorama of the world, we no longer have the tools to process it unless we take a selfie and post it on Facebook.  Until it’s there, we never went to Shenandoah National Park to watch the leaves change, never saw a bear cross the woods, let alone got out of car to take a hike through a dense woods populated with species whose names and biological realities we will never bother to consider.

Worse even that this, is how racing to reduce complicated, complex, vast experiences to a digital photo or a website dulls the skills we might have cultivated to engage with it.  We are no longer able to be patient with processes of the natural world, whether it be the turn of the seasons or the emotional ranging that creating intimacy involves.  We already know what we want, thanks to our technology, and we are looking to get that desire satisfied so that we can move on to the next.  At the entrance station where I work, the few times I’ve been in the main office and a car pulls up, the driver and passengers are so engaged at staring to the left into the empty booth that they don’t see me standing on the other side of the car.  It would be hilarious if it weren’t such a dispiriting reminder of how fixed people have become.  Then, as they leave, they ask me to recommend the “best direction” to take into the park.  I want to tell them, and sometimes I do, that the best direction is all around them, if only they would keep their eyes and their minds open.  Unfortunately, these two sensory organs have already been effectively diminished thanks to Steve Jobs and his techno brethren.


February 4, 2015

I’m not sure where I get the frugal part of my nature.  I can’t figure whether it’s a vestige of my Scandinavian inheritance, an expression of my ecological outlook, the influence of my Venus in Virgo, or some combination of all three.  Anyway, I get some kind of kick from “making do” with whatever is at hand, and “doing without” takes on a value 180º opposed to the drive for possession that powers our consumer culture.

Partly due to this trait, the objects I own teeter on the edge of obsolescence, especially when it comes to technology, a fact apparent when I post since, without a smartphone or a sophisticated camera, I have no pictures of my own to upload.

But I actually do own a low-tech digital camera because my friend Uma gave me her old one.  She has gadgets because her movie star son sends them to her, but their demands flummox her easily since she’s 30 years older than I am.  Stymied by this particular camera, she passed it along to me, without, sadly, any of the cables for power and transferring images.  After sacrificing a handful of AA batteries, I learned this particular model chews them up, so now anytime I do use it, immediately I’m forced to turn the camera off and remove the batteries if I want them to still have a charge next time.

Unsurprisingly, I’ve found a virtue in the midst of all this inconvenience.  True, it lessens my ability to capture candid shots, but then it forces me to decide which pictures I should try harder to remember with my own imperfect, god-given faculties.  More importantly, however, it keeps me from taking bad pictures and shoving them under people’s noses as if they had any merit.  I know myself well enough to realize that a smoothly-working digital camera would only lead to endless photos of my cats, few images of which would express their ineffably adorable qualities, and a host of indistinguishable images of flaming skies as the sun rises and sets.

Last year I learned that there were card readers that transferred digital images from a camera’s memory card to one’s computer, but despite some good intentions, I could never get around to purchasing one.  Then yesterday I brought home a refurbished iMac with a card reader pre-installed.  I’m not sure what this means for my blog.  Will bad images proliferate?  I hope not.  But arguably this blog serves no other purpose than a scrap book for who I am:  a woman moving slowly into the 21st century with her cats, her sunsets, her strange quirks, and her dreams.

Below is an image of my pool.  Seeing it again in all its glory after so many months, even digitally, makes my heart glad.

my dream of summer

my dream of summer

My cell phone rant

January 25, 2011


I watched Woody Allen’s Manhattan again the other night.  I’ve watched my favorite Woody Allen movies so often that I can, and do, recite passages of dialogue, an attribute that categorizes me as the least desirable movie companion unless you too have memorized dialogue.

Although Annie Hall is my favorite, Manhattan is the more completely realized of the two.  In Annie Hall, Allen’s misogyny is undercut by Diane Keaton’s sweetly daffy portrayal.  What she does with what was probably a really nasty portrait of an ex-girlfriend proves that she really can be a great actress.  But she can’t break out of Allen’s grip in Manhattan.  Like the woman she plays in the movie squeezed between two men, Keaton has nowhere else to go other than the path Allen has drawn for her – a tightly wrapped intellectual even more neurotic and unsympathetic than Allen’s character Isaac.  Only Mariel Hemingway gets a break.  In the first film where Allen’s creepy liaisons with women young enough to be his daughter receives mention, Hemingway is lighted so lovingly that it makes an aging woman like me (who back in the day used to be mistaken for Hemingway) continue to envy her.

Because I’ve been thinking about technology of late, a shot maybe halfway through the film with a long line of public telephone stands caught my attention.  As someone who refuses to get a cell phone,  I could measure how far we’ve traveled from the end of the 1970s to today, when public telephones are practically extinct.  But the shot isn’t merely atmospheric:  telephone conversations are integral to the entire movie.  You begin to see how the characters are calling each other, talking to each other, but aren’t connecting.  The scene where Diane is talking to her analyst, dealing with her married lover and trying to quiet her hyperactive dog Waffles is hilarious.

The shot also sets up the ending, which is entirely dependent on the technology of the late 70s.  When Woody Allen’s  Isaac dials Mariel Hemingway’s character on the phone, there’s a strange beeping which it took a few seconds for me to recognize. How long has it been since you heard a busy signal?   Because he can’t reach her, either from his apartment or the phone booths along the way, he runs across town to talk in person.  “You have to have a little faith in people,” she tells him before she flies off to London, to which Isaac, disappointed by his best friend, his former lover, and maybe even himself, responds with a tentative but definite smile.

Today lovers phone each other’s cells, text, e-mail, facebook, what-have-you, the minute they’ve separated.  Because we’re so technologically over-connected, it obscures even further the question of whether we’re truly communicating. Now’s my chance to relate my cell phone story.  In the late 1980s, I went on a date with a man employed at Motorola.  As men will do, he tried to impress me by talking about how Motorola was in the process of perfecting the technology to allow not merely portable phones but mobile ones.  I was not impressed.  “Who wants to talk more on the telephone?” I asked.  “No one has anything interesting to say as it is.”

Okay, avoid my advice when it comes to tech stock decisions.  But I think my point is still valid.  None of these new ways to connect have improved our ability to know ourselves, speak from our hearts, and listen to others.  For that to happen, only hard work and a little faith will suffice.

Other blogs you might like

September 28, 2010

A piece on Amazon in the August 2/9 issue of The Nation confirms what I’ve been suspecting about that metric of offering choices that we’ve all experienced by now:  “If you liked X, here’s some other titles you might like.”  As the author of the article, Colin Robinson, points out, the algorithms used by Amazon (Netflix and countless others) to calm the consumer’s fear that there are too many choices available “can simultaneously increase the variety of books purchased . . while decreasing the overall variety.”  He describes “[t]he loss of serendipity that comes with no knowing exactly what one is looking for.”  An ex-Amazon editor points out that it “engineers spontaneity out of the picture.  The happy accident, the freakish discovery, ceases to exist.”

I’m all about the freakish discovery (as for “Happy Accidents,” watch it instantly on Netflix; it’s a refreshing surprise), hence my perverse, Luddite affection for public libraries.  But there’s something else going on here besides the narrowness of choices provided.  While reading another Nation piece on Tea Party candidate Rand Paul supporters in Kentucky, I realized that social networking sites are offering a world equally lacking in difference.  One supporter learned about Rand Paul from his Facebook page.  “The page doesn’t just give me information about the campaign,” the interviewed man explains.  “It also connects me to other people who feel similarly to myself.”

I’m not against people getting together with others who feel the same way.  Back in the day, when people made the time to get together with their bowling league or at the Elk’s Club or with their knitting circle, they could see how small, how exclusive, their groups were. When they went to the video store, they warmly greeted the folks in their circle but also said hello to other community members who they may have quarreled with over school board or zoning issues.  Married couples might not have socialized with the divorcees, but their kids went to school together so they smiled at each other during school programs, a silent acknowledgement of how tough it was to parent, for instance, or of just how boring those programs could be.

With cyberspace, this kind of tight, sometimes uncomfortable physical dimension sewn together by shared daily experience has been overcome.  True, people maybe be feeling less isolated and more able to express their individuality (this is a perception worth debating), but this comes at the cost of bypassing those people who have different opinions.   I would argue that this trade-off is very bad.  We need to start listening to the people who disagree with us, not because we need to emulate Obama’s namby-pamby bipartisanship (which is just a ruse — notice him pimping for the Democrats, proof his soul belongs to the DNC) but because we all live in the same neighborhood, no matter how big it has grown and no matter how weird we have gotten, sitting in our homes ordering books and picking out movies on line.