Saturday, March 22, 2008

Electronic addiction?

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, internet, critiques

"A mathematician is a device for turning coffee into theorems" – Paul Erdös...today we might say a programmer is a device for turning coffee and pizza into "the next cool hack," be it a great game or a "killer app". (Credit for the image goes to the Digital Daily blog, where it heads an introduction to "internet addiction.")

Most of us are not programmers (and some of us old programmers don't fade away, we just turn into power users). Not that many are power users. Yet millions of otherwise "ordinary people" spend at least as much time online as they do watching TV, to the chagrin of TV advertisers.

It is just forty years since I learned Fortran and began programming. I spent thirty years writing scientific software. I was sufficiently knowledgeable that, while I was in graduate school getting advanced degrees in Geology, I was a (uncredentialed) professor of Computer Science. But that began about ten years into my career.

I hadn't learned programming and operating systems in school; I was around when operating systems were invented. The first computer I used, an IBM 1130, didn't have an OS at first, but we loaded the Executive deck (containing a mini-IBM 360 OS) in front of the Fortran Compiler deck, our program deck, and a series of blank cards afterward if my program specified card output rather than printed (on an IBM Selectric typewriter). The 1130 had one of the first disk drives, a removable 5-Mbyte single platter 14 inches across. It was used to hold the various decks' contents during running of the program. We didn't have a way to write data to the disk in 1968.

In the ensuing years, I became one of those pale creatures who would write code for 36-48 hours at a stretch, with periodic infusions of pizza and various colas (I abhorred coffee).

Fast-forward to 1994. Comet Shoemaker-Levy is about to crash into Jupiter. A friend at work tells me about Mosaic, the first full-featured Web browser (it evolved into Netscape). By this time, I've been spending less than half my time programming, and the other half doing various kinds of analysis for an oil company; I do have degrees in Geology, after all. For a few days there, I didn't get much done that was useful. I'd used the text-based Internet a few times, but the Web—it just blew me away.

Do the math; another fourteen years have passed. I use the internet a lot. I surf, blog, and e-mail. I don't use MySpace or Second Life, though the latter intrigues me a little. I have begun to husband my time, however, and SL is a huge time-waster. But I spend more of my time on the Web than reading...it was once the opposite.

Yet, I do a lot of stuff that needs no computer, no connection, even no electricity (except for lights): talking to family & friends, church activities, reading, walking & other forms of exercise, gardening & yard work, and making mobiles and other hobbies. I did learn to take time to smell the flowers...and grow 'em.

I think I am in the middle of the spectrum of middle-class computer use. I don't know if Lee Siegel would agree. In Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob I find I may be one of "the enemy": a booster of the technology. I am certainly aware of its damaging potential. I see others following, even more intensely, the path I trod when all I had to accompany my late-night coding vigil was a character-cell-based 12-inch green-screen CRT terminal.

My son and his friends are online a very great amount. He never turns off his laptop. He just shuts its lid to "hibernate" it while carrying it between classes or to-and-from everywhere. His campus is a gigantic wi-fi hot spot, so he's online, potentially, 24/7.

Author Siegel attempts the impossible: to critique the invincible. The language of internet use and boosterism makes it as unassailable as Mother and Apple Pie, a fact he notes in almost every chapter.

I am not sure why I found the book hard to get all the way through. It is well enough written, and his points are valid. Culture sure seems to be infolding itself into a cluster of millions of blind egos, and many who ought to know better quail at being thought "unpopular". Like we're all adolescents at the Homecoming Dance, afraid our tie will get laughed at, or something! His points all show up the juvenile nature of a technology that is as much about fun as about work. That'll change.

I am not a blind supporter of the Internet. I don't confuse its libertarian tendencies with "democracy" (surely the least-understood word in today's political discourse). What he sees as critical dangers and risks I see as growing pains. I imagine the first architects to actually design houses (or, more likely, temples) soon came to decry the "anarchy" of do-it-yourself home building. The human race had only been at it for a few thousand years, and by the way, "cave man" didn't live in caves, but used them mainly for ceremonies and burials, and for storm shelters when their flimsy shanties blew down.

We're at the shanty stage of computer use. We've only been doing this for seventy years or less. We've only been "on the Web" for twenty or so years. Sure, there's a lot of goofiness going on. We don't need the Internet to remind us we're all kids at heart. I need only enter the Men's Room to be reminded that most men (in a building that contains only professionals, at that) never learned proper bathroom etiquette from their Mom or Dad. How do you think such creatures are going to behave in a medium where anonymity is the rule? DUH! (I ignore women's juvenility; I'll leave that to female commentators)

Sure, it's a mess. What new thing isn't? Let's see what the next couple hundred years bring. This too shall pass.

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