I got a message before coming into the office this morning. The computer server (which is in the process of being replaced) is down. Is there any news short of the unexpected death of a loved one that will send a person’s day into a sinkhole any more effectively? I doubt it.
I remember being introduced to computers at the end of the 1970s. My high school got the equipment to link by telephone to the computer (I mean THE COMPUTER) at the Fort Wayne campus shared by IU and Purdue. We were allowed to write little programs in BASIC language that consisted of about five lines. These seemed to me then (and still do) to be utterly and completely worthless. Really, who needed a machine that cost more than the GDP of quite a few small countries in order to resolve some simple logical question that even I could do I my head in three seconds?
And for all of the billions and billions of dollars and hours that resulted in that machine, it could not even master simple communication. High school me was quite certain that “Is the Pope Catholic?” was the functional equivalent of “Yes”, but my electronic nemesis on the other end of the phone line seemed completely flummoxed by such a simple question, albeit one tinged with a bit of sarcasm. But it didn’t really matter, because whether that thing understood me or not, my life was not affected in the least.
In college, the University I attended used a big DEC 10 mainframe. It was still THE COMPUTER. Better yet, it lived in THE COMPUTER ROOM. That room was a special place with climate control that was the envy of every student who had to operate the radiator valves that heated our dorm rooms. And cooling? That was strictly BYOF (bring your own fan). It was clear that THE COMPUTER was far more valuable than any number of actual tuition-paying students. And it seemed about as reliable as some of them, like the ones who seemed to have difficulty navigating the freedom of college life between Thursday and Sunday evenings.
Many was the time that THE COMPUTER was down. I was never allowed into the room to see what a computer that was down actually looked like. I always sort of envisioned a big metal giant lying on its back while some technicians in white lab coats slapped it on the cheeks, sponged water on its outer case and maybe used some of those little Q-Tip things that boxing trainers used on their bleeding fighters. But maybe with solder on the ends.
When the computer was down in college, it affected my life some, but mainly in learning that my walk across campus to use a terminal or a card reader had been wasted and that I would have to rearrange my busy schedule to come back again later.
But today, HAL is here, and apparently living in my office. I have work to do, but my formerly trusty server can almost be heard whispering “I’m sorry Jim, I cannot allow you to do that.” Which is a problem, because in 2015 it controls my entire environment in the same way HAL did for Astronaut Dave in 2001.
Where a computer used to be an expensive curiosity, it was still a curiosity that was more in the way of entertainment, or maybe of some minimally useful tool. But now? It shuffles and sorts my data, it tracks my time, handles my communication (right down to the phones), processes my words and spreads my sheets. Wait, that last one didn’t come out right.
My computer is down and I can do almost nothing. I have been reduced to a trip to the BMV to register a car, a trip to the barber for a much-needed haircut, and writing a blog post. Wait – wasn’t there a time when I could practice law with a yellow pad, a pen and a telephone? Yes, I think there was. I’m sure I remember it. But I think that it required those – what are they again? – oh yes, paper files. Which is a problem.
I once read something written by an old-time lawyer. He related a story about the even older-time lawyer who had schooled him early in his practice. The old gentleman would routinely grouse that introduction of the telephone had completely ruined the practice of law. I thought this was quite funny when I read it years ago. Today, however, I am starting to sympathize with the old gent. Have I really reached the stage in life where altogether too many sentences begin with the phrase “In my day . . . “? I hope you are proud of yourself, Mr. Gates.
I guess it is time to straight-up admit it – we have allowed computers to enter our lives like little black plastic Trojan horses. “Here, let me do that for you” comes the helpful offer, one time after another. “Of course you may” is the oft-repeated reply. We have all been suckered into a trap, each and every one of us, because every once in awhile, one of the things goes bad and moves in for the kill. Today, I take my turn as pitiful victim. And here I sit, a usually skilled and experienced fellow reduced to a blithering dufus, asking our computer guy (I mean COMPUTER GUY) pathetic and inane questions like “So, how do things look?”
Well, it is time to wrestle back control over my life. No more sitting in front of a useless plastic screen. It is time to interact with something real. There are books to be read, walks to be taken and people to be visited. I may not be able to find a Walden Pond nearby, but at least there is this centuries-old custom that involves an amber-colored malted grain distillate. Yes, an old pastime from before the computer age might be just the thing. And no, HAL, you are not invited.