For someone who believes so strongly in the culture-changing potential of information-age technology, I’ve been oddly slow to embrace its successive twists and turns. I first used a computer for word processing some time around 1979, when the Kansas City Star told me that I had to start writing my concert reviews directly on its mainframe computing system rather than typing them on an IBM Selectric and having them scanned into the system optically. I was stunned–that really is the word for it–by my first encounter with word processing, and recognized at once that it would change every writer’s life for the better. I first used a personal computer in 1985, when I started writing my pieces on the PC of Harper’s Magazine after hours (and not infrequently on company time, too!). I bought an identical IBM computer two years later when I went to work for the New York Daily News, and used it for the next decade and a half.
That was, needless to say, a long time between drinks, and my stubborn loyalty to my Pleistocene-age PC caused me to miss out on the early years of the Web. On the other hand, I wrote four books and hundreds of essays, articles, and reviews on it, and in the process it became something like an extension of my brain. Furthermore, I was working on The Skeptic: A Life of H.L. Mencken for much of that time, and was terrified at the prospect of changing word-processing systems in the middle of writing a long book. But even without The Skeptic, I had deadlines virtually every week, and I simply couldn’t imagine slamming on the brakes long enough to make the switch.
By 1999 I was stalled on The Skeptic, and decided that I needed to take a sabbatical in order to jump-start my progress. The idea of walking away from my regular writing commitments was frightening in the extreme. Freelancers, even well-established ones, aren’t in the habit of turning down assignments. Still, I knew I had to do something, so I extracted promises of loyalty from to my editors (all of whom kept them, for which much thanks), shut down the shop, and spent the next six months working on The Skeptic. Actually, I should say that I spent five of the next six months working on The Skeptic, because I junked my PC at the beginning of the sabbatical, bought a Mac clone, had all my data translated from PC to Mac, and began using my new computer as soon as my archives were installed. I became reasonably comfortable with Word on Mac within a few weeks, but I pulled a lot of hair out during that first month, and I didn’t make much progress on The Skeptic, either. All things considered, the only good thing to be said for my sabbatical was that it spared me the grief of switching while simultaneously trying to hit weekly deadlines. That might have killed me.
I bought an iBook two years ago and fell in love with it at first sight. Alas, by then I was doing more writing than ever, so instead of making the jump to Mac’s new operating system when I changed computers, I clung stubbornly to System 9.2, and stuck with it long after it was clear that I needed to switch to OS X. Eventually, though, the time came when I could stall no longer. I knew I wouldn’t have the luxury of taking a computer-related sabbatical, but I also knew I had to change horses, so I cleared out a whole week of my schedule–this one–and yesterday I installed the latest version of OS X.
To be exact, I had a friend install it for me, a process that turned out to be fraught with every imaginable form of technological grief crammed into a single day. Fortunately, the ending came out happy, and I spent most of the wee hours fussing with my desktop and downloading music files, something I hadn’t been able to do before. (If you’re curious, the first song I bought from iMusic was Frank Sinatra’s “Witchcraft.”) The posting you’re reading now is the first thing I’ve written on OS X except for e-mail. Tonight I’ll try my hand at a full-scale book review. All is not yet bliss–I haven’t yet imported my mp3 files to OS X, and I seem to have mislaid my e-mail address book–but I can already see that I should have switched to OS X the day I bought my iMac.
Will that realization make me quicker to embrace the latest wrinkles in home computing? Probably not. My guess is that I came to information-age technology too late in life to ever become completely comfortable with it. I use it happily, but I don’t want to play with it, much less spend more than an absolute minimum of time learning how to use it in my day-to-day work. Aside from everything else, I’m too busy. I am, in fact, a near-ideal subject for experiments in user-friendliness: if I find a new technology easy to learn, so will the rest of the world.
In retrospect, what surprises me is that I’ve ventured this far into the promised land. I don’t know anybody my age (I’m 48) who doesn’t use computers, but I know lots of people in the generation just before me who never quite managed to integrate them into their daily lives. When I worked for the New York Daily News in the late Eighties, for example, the editor of the paper ostentatiously kept a manual typewriter on his desk. I suspect he was motivated by the same class-conscious vanity that supposedly led members of the French royalty to wear pants without pockets (why did they need pockets when they had servants?). Fortunately, my boss at the News, Michael Pakenham, was a technophile who was determined to get the hang of computers or die trying, and it was at his insistence that I bought my first PC–it was, in fact, a condition of going to work for him. Similarly, I didn’t switch from dial-up to cable modems until well after I launched this blog, just as I didn’t start using e-mail until The Wall Street Journal informed me several years ago that it wanted me to start sending my pieces to the paper that way.
By now at least a few of you must be smiling at the presumptuousness that allows me to predict the inevitability of technology-driven cultural change when I myself am so reluctant to embrace it in my personal life. I got an e-mail the other day that made a related point about one of my recent postings, albeit in a kindly way:
Why does book format have to be one or the other? Why can’t both forms, physical paper books and ebooks, exist side by side?
I enjoy reading news, articles, blogs, etc online. But I want an actual physical paper book in my hands when it’s a cold rainy night and I curl up on the couch with a cup of tea, a blanket, the cat, some good music (from any format!) etc.
I don’t think that will ever go away.
People still ride horses for pleasure, and a very small number of people even still use draft horses for work. Horses didn’t disappear altogether, even though we’ve had cars for so long.
Instruments haven’t disappeared, even though we have synthesized music now (perhaps they might? but c’mon, who wants to dance zydeco to a synthesized accordion?).
Sailboats and bicycles exist, even though motorboats and motorbikes have been around for a long time now.
I think humanity’s love, and sometimes gut-level need, of tactile senses will keep all these things around for centuries to come.
But then, that’s just me, the gal who re-reads paper books until they fall apart.
Needless to say (I hope!), I agree with all this. I am, after all, the drama critic who once wrote that live theater is an “obsolete technology”! Which it is–but I doubt that will ever stop small groups of people from succumbing to its ephemeral magic. At least I hope it won’t. Still, there’s a big difference between curling up on the couch with a handsomely bound book and continuing to write 5,000-word essays with a fountain pen, something nobody in his right mind would think of doing.
For some reason I seem to have a knack for intuiting the large-scale cultural effects of technologies I have yet to adopt. I understood what digital downloading would do to the recording industry years before I downloaded my first piece of iMusic. Yet I wish I were more comfortable with those technologies, which may simply be another way of saying that I wish I were ten years younger. Or perhaps not: I’ve always known that part of me is inclined by temperament to live in the past, and the fact that I don’t never fails to strike me as something of a minor miracle. For that I thank my younger friends (a category that by now includes most of the people to whom I am closest, Our Girl in Chicago very much included), all of whom seem collectively determined to keep me from slipping into that mindset so neatly captured by Evelyn Waugh in The Ordeal of Gilbert Pinfold:
His strongest tastes were negative. He abhorred plastics, Picasso, sunbathing and jazz–everything in fact that had happened in his own lifetime. The tiny kindling of charity which came to him through his religion sufficed only to temper his disgust and change it to boredom. There was a phrase in the ‘thirties: “It is later than you think,” which was designed to cause uneasiness. It was never later than Mr. Pinfold thought.
I hope I never fall into that self-strangling trap, just as I hope I never succumb to the equally reflexive neophilia that sometimes blights the declining years of people who long desperately to seem younger than they are. I know exactly how old I am, and I don’t care who else knows it. Usually.
On which sober note I think I’ll bring this posting to a close. I still have a lot more to learn about OS X, and other things to do as well. What’s more, my e-mailbox is filling up with messages from friends who read my cri du coeur this morning and have hastened to write me. To all of you I offer this encouraging word: I may be middle-aged, but I ain’t a Luddite yet!