Remembering the language I speak
by Cliff Bostock
(Originally published in the "Paradigms" column of Creative
When I recently logged onto America Online and
decided to check an old e-mail account there for the first time in months,
I found a message from an internet friend from whom I hadn't heard in
nearly a year.
I was curious when my friend's mail said that he was sending some
pictures of himself with his family on their vacation. He wrote that he'd
compressed five photos into a zip file. I opened the file and, to my irritation,
there were no pictures.
You can guess the rest of the story. Within an hour my computer was disabled.
I had downloaded a virus - not the infamous Love Bug, but a similar one.
Soon, one problem after another developed. The only real hope, I was told,
was to copy all my files, then completely wipe my hard drive clean and
start over. This took the better part of two days - and I still lost a
huge amount of material.
The effort was exhausting. I broke into tears several times. Such an
experience makes anyone older than 35 painfully aware of how different
the world is from the one of our youth. Computers were not part of day-to-day
life. For me, the computer was a silly fantasy that belonged in a Jerry
Lewis movie. Or, later, it was the sinister voice of Hal in 2001.
Computers were light bulb-blinking machines on the verge of erupting into
smoke and fire in air-conditioned rooms sequestered in IBM buildings.
This was part of our general mistrust of technology - a mistrust
that haunted me since the original John Glenn space shot. As it happens,
one of my uncles - a man who liked to drive a vintage fire engine around
his property -- was a certified electronics genius. He helped engineer
Glenn's space shot. I watched the historic event with my cousin Cameron.
Because we had been privy to his father's anxieties, we were shocked when
a weird-science disaster did not occur.
Not long afterward, Cameron and I were dispatched to the Franklin
Institute in Philadelphia for a class in electronics. We had both been
pegged as being pretty smart and we were the only children in a class
otherwise full of adults. This was a time when I had been threatened with
being made to "skip" two grades and, soon afterward, was put
in one of the nation's first classes in "new math," if you ever
heard of that disaster.
Cameron and I had radically different experiences of the electronics
class. Whereas he was fascinated by the abstract science, I most enjoyed
the adventure of taking a train alone into Philly. It aggravated me to
sit in a classroom and listen to lectures about electricity when the weird
world of the big city - including museum artifacts of dinosaur bones and
Egyptian temples -- was just beyond the door.
And what most captivated me about the class was electricity's invisibility
-- the way it could only be described in metaphors and effects. I remember
trying to talk to Cameron about how I was always distracted because I
was fascinated with why, say, the teacher chose to symbolize electrons
as ping pong balls instead of as some other round object. When I tried
to talk to my teachers about the same thing they mainly told me I was
missing the point.
It wasn't until the following year, as a "gifted" guinea
pig in another city, I had a teacher who explained that I had been responding
to the "poetics" and language of the experience. She told me
that this was a valid, if unappreciated, way of perceiving the world.
This was a moment for me - a moment, perhaps, when I glimpsed my nature,
my destiny. It is a very odd experience to have grown up being told you
are exceptionally bright but to also be aware that your intelligence isn't
of the valued sort that imagines building computers, businesses or space
You will understand, then, how when my computer crashed, it was
rather like the fulfillment of that childhood expectation that John Glenn's
little space capsule would erupt into weird disaster.
But the real horror was being thrown back into the modern version of
that classroom at the Franklin Institute. At least, computer technology
was a relative abstraction in the hands of geniuses then. Now, of course,
the minions of a technocracy handle it. I particularly mean the "technical
support" people whose job it is to make people like me feel like
idiots. I am an idiot for downloading the virus. I am an idiot for asking
silly questions. I am an idiot for failing to back up all my files in
expectation of a crash - which wouldn't occur if I weren't an idiot. At
the least, I should know I'm an idiot and act cautiously.
The potentially elegant vocabulary of science, with its interesting
metaphors, is completely lost at this level. One encounters instead the
ass-covering double-speak of people whose real agenda is to get you off
their phones. (I particularly cite the fiction-speaking technocrats of
Media One who took three months and this crash to get a cable modem working
at my house.)
The difference between the adult me and the child who couldn't
make his fascination at the Franklin Institute known is some trust in
my own intelligence. I can hear the language and know that it points to
something more than pure information - specifically the authentic failures
of technology and the anxiety they produce. I think it would be a fine
thing for the world's "technical support" people to begin looking
at their language and vocabulary of symbols. In the same way my uncle
rode around his property in a fire engine and my cousin and I kept our
fingers crossed during the momentous space shot, language expresses something
deeper than the immediate meaning.
An emergency is not always a sign of stupidity!
Copyright 2000 by Creative Loafing
Archetypal Advice |