I had to tow the jalopy to the shop to get a new hard-drive installed. Our town has only one tech-shop, and it bills itself as a "Computer & Sign Store." Every time I walk through the door, it appears to be the sign aspect of the business generating the most income, and Wednesday was no exception.
I knew it would be a little while before I got online again, but I didn't expect my anxiety to mount to the degree that it did. I imagine I'm similar to most relatively literate people my age. I read heartfelt essays from poets like Wendell Berry or James Laxner, who quietly assert that technology is fostering our alienation, even as it promotes itself as the cure. "Yes, yes," I think, nodding to myself. "We certainly need to bear this in mind." But then - conk! - my computer crashes, or a blackout occurs, and I am, there's no other word for it, stranded.
Without the internet, my sense of intellectual expansion or cultivation dissipates as I'm forced to rely on conversation with family and neighbors. How absurd that, when this technological distraction is removed from the scene, I conduct my everyday physical congress steeped in a sense of isolation. How healthy is that?
The truth is I'm increasingly becoming a nerd. In 1995 I worked in a bookstore, and it seemed like every second title was heralding the grand new frontier of the digital age. I owned a 286 at the time, but I stayed resolutely off-line, and only used it to write my short stories, or play Wolfenstein. But I dutifully read Nicholas Negroponte, and I bought issues of Wired magazine, that monthly poster-colored travel brochure for destinations digital. And because they were so entertaining, I mainlined the cyberpunks: Gibson, Sterling and Stephenson (the latter being the only one worth revisiting). It took ten years of indoctrination, and the introduction of high-speed hookup, but I've finally reached that point of slack-jawed "I can't believe how much fun this is!" buy-in. I've finally arrived at 1995.
There is still a part of me that lags behind. I can install hardware and software, for instance, but my code-writing abilities haven't evolved past the "Me Tarzan, you Jane" level. The sort of rescue operation performed by my local sign-painters remains, for the moment, mysterious. That bothers me. It bothers me to be professionally removed from the maintenance of my life.
I'm unsure of how best to locate my dis-ease with this scene, but I'm drawn to something my wife said when she came back from her first visit to Uganda. She said everyone there participates in an immediate, free market. It doesn't matter if you are in a village or a city, people engage in their trade openly - that is to say, out of doors. The road is lined with the open manufacture of practical everyday items, as well as artistic renderings, from whatever is available for the salvaging. "Nothing is mysterious," she said. "You see how they do it, right in front of you."
When I wrote that, I vaguely remembered something Brian Eno said in an interview with Wired magazine. I raced down to my basement to retrieve the issue (May 1995!) and recover the exact quote:
Do you know what I hate about computers? The problem with computers is that there is not enough Africa in them. This is why I can't use them for very long. Do you know what a nerd is? A nerd is a human being without enough Africa in him or her. I know this sounds inversely racist to say, but I think the African connection is so important... What is pissing me off (with the computer) is that it uses so little of my body. You're just sitting there, and it's quite boring. You've got this stupid little mouse that requires one hand, and your eyes. That's it. What about the rest of you? No African would stand for a computer like that. It's imprisoning.
|"This hand in particular."|
The Brian Eno interview can be read in its entirety here. And because I raised the spectre of cyberpunk fiction, I want to make a pitch for the criminally underrated Dennis Danvers, whose Circuit Of Heaven is the most compelling, best-told story of the lot - because he paid attention to the emotional life of his characters (an all but nonexistent trait among SF writers).