Recently, I posted a simple question on my facebook profile: which computer should I buy? The question might be naively put, but it is an important one, because it touches on both a considerable expense and a large portion of my daily routine. Within hours, it had become my most commented-on post in the five years that I have been on facebook. It took until post #17 for anyone to ask what I was actually looking for. I decided to use this question as the starting point for my Sunday meditation and have since been able to make the following observations. Feedback is welcome.
1. I do not understand the passion and rage with which people discuss the Windows/Mac issue. But then I also don’t understand how people can HATE broccoli, or almost kill each other lining up for free T-shirts. I do live in a relationship that was severely tested by the fact that we could not agree who was the greater Lied composer, Schumann or Schubert (right answer: Schubert, but you knew that), so I assume it must be something like that.
2. I have only ever owned two computers in the past. One was a C64 which I got as a Christmas present in 1987. About ten years after that, I was given a laptop that was too big to fit into my Renault Clio. Both lasted for several years. I am immensely indebted to university libraries all over the world for allowing me to use their computers for writing papers, my M.A. and my doctoral dissertation. My social life was also greatly enriched by meeting people at the St John’s MCR computer room.
3. In spite of the above two statements, I think I’m actually quite good at getting the stuff done that I need to do on a computer. I use Elluminate, WordPress, I know more about Acrobat Pro than everyone else except maybe Christine’s toy polar bear that watches me as I use this program. I just don’t seem to “see” my computer. Programmers and engineers wouldn’t criticise me for it. They call their products “transparent technology” and they are proud of them. Christopher Coker, in his book The Future of War, mentions the fact that our society has been profoundly changed by the ubiquity of computers. But he goes on to say: „Our humanity has been redefined for us. To be a genius is to have greater situational awareness. To be knowledgeable is to be better informed. To be better informed is to know of every change in circumstances in the external environment. Wisdom has largely become a matter of information processing. And knowledge is no longer the discovery of facts as in the past but an ongoing process of data evaluation that, as subjective beings, we evaluate with machines.” (p. 35) The two things that strike me about this analysis are: you have to be able to understand information which you evaluate with machines; “with” means with the help of, so they are tools that deliver data that you use in your own value-based decision-making processes. Second, Coker seems to suggest an approach to computers that is guided by what political scientists call output legitimacy, i.e., if it works we’ll take it. Aesthetics, corporate structures, and ethical concerns with regard to the production process seem not to feature in this analysis.
4. I write and even read mostly on my computer. I do not print out pdf files, articles pulled from databases, e-mails, or newspaper articles. Nevertheless, I get or buy a new book almost every day. I use the internet to order books and to read book reviews, to discuss ideas and to share concerns in ways that make people send me books. I love having a library, in which there are a number of glossy prints of pictures of libraries.
5. I am able to switch off, and I like it, but I notice that it is becoming increasingly difficult. If I went to the gym I would say I need something like a cooling down exercise after a long workout when I have finished doing my “work.” I browse pointless web sites, spend too much time on Sporcle, the Africa pages of various news channels and so on. However, I own a mobile phone that can do exactly two things: make and receive phone calls, and send and receive text messages. I have no desire to receive news updates about earth quakes in Mongolia, Brad Pitt’s break ups, bmi’s special fares, and penis enlargements while I am buying striped shirts, making Thai curry, or read my hard copy of The New Yorker. It’s not news if it cannot wait.
6. I can no longer put off the question what I am actually looking for. I want my computer to be fast, safe, and reliable. I don’t like blue screens, viruses, or wait times. I appreciate that, compared to me and my friends, the computer is a more specialised entity and much more limited in what it can do (you cannot watch Friends on me, but you can watch Friends with me — what do you prefer? Better still, you can be friends with me).
7. Have you ever been to the Schuttersgalerij in Amsterdam? I bet you all the people depicted on the paintings there would have iPads and uLots (don’t ask me what they are) and a whole host of useless gadgets.
8. A great passage in Ernst Jünger’s diaries (although I tend to think of the entirety of his diaries as a great passage — but where does it lead?) is the one where he asks his travel agent (my older readers will remember those) for overseas boat tickets and then, a few days later, notes in awe that they arrived after a mere three days. But then again that’s still how long you have to wait for most British railway companies to mail you your tickets.
9. I realize that there is something incredibly silly about these discussions. I am NOT looking forward to meeting people you use the word “grundsätzlich” in every other sentence when I’m back in Germany.
10. What do you think?