Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Catalogs and Caterwauls

Forgive me if I've already boasted about this (how often do I have cause to boast about anything?), but this very blog has the unique distinction of being the first Google web search result for the phrase "joyless elitist luddite."

I feel honored by the recognition -- when you're on the tier of Internet celebrity that I currently occupy, recognition by a brainless, uncomprehending algorithm is usually the best you can hope for -- but I don't think I deserve it because it's not wholly accurate. I'm not really a Luddite.

There's plenty of evidence to the contrary. I'm not on board with the Singularity. One of my favorite books that I read this year was Jaron Lanier's You Are Not a Gadget. I don't own a smartphone and don't want one. I am also sometimes sufficiently crazy enough to wish for a moratorium on "disruptive" technologies so that humanity can take a few minutes to settle and try to figure its shit out. (It is this same fanciful idealism that compels me to try to solicit representation for a new novel.)

But I'm not really a Luddite. I'm not strictly opposed to the fruits of the digital flourish. Why, right off the top of my brainpan I can think of two recent examples where I've felt a profuse appreciation of technology, and I'm sure you're eager to read them.

ONE. One half of my day job over the last year has been to maintain a small library at a Quaker center. It's important to understand (particularly if you are in its employ) that the organization, like most nonprofits, does not have a lot of cash to throw around, especially after 2008. The library is a luxurious but nonessential component of the institution and contributes virtually nothing directly toward its bottom line, and so it hasn't had much of a budget for a while. Digitizing the card catalog was a renovation the library couldn't afford to make.

See this?

This is the card catalog. It's an exemplary specimen of what my former colleague Lawrence might call a classical database. Its essential function is the same as the digital version: it is a tool for collecting, organizing, and accessing data, and it does so without modern exorbitances like computer chips or electricity. (In fact, it represented a tremendous I.T. breakthrough in the eighteenth century.)

Anyone born after the 1980s has probably never seen one of these things, but there was a time when they were found in every library. Prior to the early stages of the digital revolution, this was the most effective tool at the library browser's disposal for locating a book on the shelf. The sight of our catalog sets certain visitors aflutter with nostalgia. "I haven't seen one of these things in years! This is such a treasure!" they'll spout, gently running their hands over its surface and opening the drawers to take a fond, familiar whiff of dust, wood, acid-free paper, and typewriter ink.

I always smile and nod and concur without looking them in the eye. But honestly? I hate this fucking thing.

People who feel nostalgic for old-school card catalog have obviously never had to maintain one. When a new book is added to the collection, it requires at least four index cards. One card (at minimum) is for the subject heading. One card (at minimum) is for the author, one is for the title. And there's a fourth card for the master list, so the collection's steward knows what cards the book is represented by in the public catalog. Each card needs to be formatted differently. All four (at least) cards have to be filed in alphabetical order in their proper drawers. And this is just for one book. It takes forever and it's a huge pain in the ass.

If we had a digital database, the process would consist of:

1.) Enter information into appropriate fields.
2.) Hit "submit."

You can make a case that the automobile has robbed from us the art of horsemanship, that electric lights have deprived us of nighttime, or that modern medicine has bereft us of the sphincter-tightening thrill of having wriggling leeches affixed to our limbs. But updating from an index card database to a digital database is a total net gain. It is technology at its best, providing convenience at the elimination of a tedious and absolutely unedifying task. (Go on, make the case that data entry and filing improves a human being beyond helping him earn a paycheck. I dare you.)

TWO. I don't consider myself a "birder," but I'm really into birds. I go outside and pay attention to my surroundings. I find myself especially noticing birds, so I guess that's why I've taken an interest in them lately. If I were really serious about it, I'd start carrying a field guide around with me, learn and refer to all the local birds' Latin genus/species designations (had you clicked on the link in the last section, you would know that the same person who devised the modern taxonomical system also invented the index card!), and aggravate people at parties with florid, wine-scented sermons about my last fruitful afternoon in "the field." (Experts refer to it "the field." Amateurs like me call it "the woods.")

When I'm outside and see an unfamiliar feathered creature, my only recourse is usually to try committing its shape and markings to memory so I can consult All About Birds the next time I get myself to a computer. If I can't can't get a really good look, or if it's small and indistinctly dull-colored, then there's really not much I can do.

Usually a bird's sound makes a more significant impression than its appearance, but remembering birdsong is usually more difficult than remembering its physical details. I can't whistle; I can't read or write musical scales, and I have no innate propensity for tone or timing. (Some of you are thinking that this explains some of my taste in music or my stilted, discordant prose. Don't think for a moment that I don't what you think.) So I'll get a sense of the song and try to remember it by consciously humming it to myself for a while; and between then and the time I sit down at a computer to check it against likely candidates, the bird's song has been invariably and unrecognizably scrambled by way of a two-hour, one-man game of telephone.

Though I've never gone out with the sole intention of looking for it, there's been this one bird I've wanted to see for a while. It's called an indigo bunting.

Passerina cyanea

There's really no deep meaning or poetical inside joke about why I'd like to see an indigo bunting in its natural habitat. It's just a very photogenic bird I happened to notice in some pictures.

One afternoon last May, my friend Dave and I were out walking in the woods (actually, it was really more of a field), and a strange song rang out ahead of us. I turned toward the source, and a cerulean blur darted across my vision, partially camouflaged against the sky. It was only visible for a few moments before disappearing into the trees and perching on a high branch somewhere out of sight. I didn't get a good enough fix on it to identify any features other than its color. It was just a very blue bird. It didn't go far; it remained in the general vicnity for a while, staying hidden, but telegraphing its presence with a long, low, melodious call.

Dave happened to have his iPhone with him, and you can guess where this is going. My first guess was indigo bunting, but the songs didn't match up. But we got a positive ID when we compared the song we heard to a recording of an eastern bluebird, and found that they synched up almost perfectly.

Sialia sialis

It's fortunate we managed to identify it when we did. I haven't seen another eastern bluebird since then, and the indigo bunting remains at large.

But it's really mindblowing: we used a pocket-size device to retrieve information on birds and bird calls from a computer network via electromagnetic signals from a remote source. HOLY COW.  Flying cars aren't the future. This is the future. Imagine telling somebody from 1990 that in twenty years everyone carried a personal Batcomputer around in their pocket. I get to do stuff like this so infrequently that I'm still amazed by it when I do.

Anyway, this was a really cool thing that happened, and it happened because my friend happened to be a smartphone owner who carries his device in his pocket more or less at all times. I'm glad it was available at that moment. And I'm certainly not unastonished by what our gadgets enable us to do (and when and where they enable us to do them).

But I'm still uninterested in owning one myself. I'm glad to cut myself off. It's a necessity. I need times when the answers aren't always at hand. Going out into the unbuilt parts of the world is something I find very refreshing and edifying, and it's not the same if I'm in the habit of carrying the Internet around with me wherever I go. I need time where answers aren't at hand. I need to be able to speculate, wonder, and drift, and I tend not to do that as much when there's an Internet connection in the vicinity. When my mind lands on some frivolous, but compelling thought -- say, what was the trick to finding Jason's mother in Friday the 13th on the NES? -- I will drop what I'm doing to look it up; and since I'm already sitting down and thinking about it, I'll refresh my memory on some similar games in the NES library, like Nightmare on Elm Street and Rambo. And while I'm at at it I'll check my email -- I'm always checking my email and never expecting anything -- and glance at the latest stories on BBC News and check on the Twitterati's hot button issues and inside jokes of the week, and I do this because I can do it and I've gotten so used to doing it that it's become something I always do. I need extended periods of time where it's out of reach -- times when I'm not tuned in to the NOISE. I need less NOISE, not more. There's too much NOISE in my life already because I welcomed it in and because I love the NOISE, but good god does it tire me.

More convenience at the expense of inviting more NOISE is too high a cost for me.

And this is precisely the familiar joyless hippie elitist Luddite out-of-touch douche line, isn't it? There's probably no use pleading the fifth at this point. Google had me figured right after all.

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