I think I was sixteen the year we got our first PC. ‘87 or ‘88. It had one of those green-tinged enormous monitors with a tiny screen and it used 5.25" floppy discs, which I think would hold about ten WordPerfect documents (because back then everyone used WordPerfect, with the blue screen, remember? and the templates over your F keys?). I’d learned how to save and organize files and how to use WordPerfect in tenth grade (perhaps the only skill from high school I still use, aside from the making of cheese fondue, an abiding love of Edna St. Vincent Millay, and of course driving), so as soon as it was home and plugged in, I started using it. We kept it in the basement, in the bedroom that used to be my sister Michele’s but which we took to calling the computer room. I wrote hundreds of bad poems on that computer; plenty of proto personal essays, a bunch of short stories, and a few homework assignments. I printed stuff off on the dot matrix printer and then enjoyed ripping off the feeding edges of the paper.
I still have one of those floppy discs in a box somewhere, just for old times’ sake.
I’m pretty sure, though, that my first interaction with a computer came way back in the sixth grade, when my history teacher Mr. Johnson (apparently ahead of his time in the inclusion of technology) taught us how to program simple commands into a mainframe. How did he have a mainframe in a public school in 1984? No clue. But I still remember the satisfying thrill of typing in the code and then seeing the computer do what I told it to do. (Even if I don’t remember the code anymore.)
Right out of high school (actually, before I was even officially done with high school, even though I really was done with high school) I started working at WordPerfect. Everyone I knew was vaguely computer-nerdish. I even went ahead and married a computer nerd.
All of which is to say: I have a hard time envisioning my life without a computer (or two) in it. And it’s also my explanation to the fact that sometimes when I’m working I find myself completely astounded at what people don’t know about using a computer. Basic stuff like accessing files and using email. In my head I’m thinking really? while I’m struggling to keep my face neutral and helpful.
Yesterday I tried to help a library patron, Karl, who told me right up front that he thinks computers are soulless and that is why he’s never learned to use one, but he also wanted to make sure that everything about him, his family, and his property on "that Internets place" was correct. At first I was exceedingly frustrated because he was a rambler and I couldn’t get to the point of what he wanted and because he wanted me to find all of his personal information and verify it all and that’s not how it works. We don’t have enough librarians to provide a personal research assistant to everyone who wants one.
I struggled to keep my neutral, helpful face on.
After teaching Karl how to use the mouse (including how it interacts with the cursor) and finding some useful maps, I told him my time was up and I had to help other people. He sighed and said, "I’m sorry, I know I’ve taken up your time, I just really, really hate computers." And I did something I almost never, ever do at work: I said what I really thought.
"You’ve really only got two choices here, Karl," I said, kindly as I could. "Whether you like them or not, computers are the way things are now. So you can learn how to use one, or you’ll be limited in which information you can access." I don’t know how he took that; maybe it seemed harsh, but it is also the truth.
I keep thinking about this encounter. I can tell it as a funny story (which I did to Kendell and Jake when I got home). But it’s more than funny. As I listened to this patron and tried to imagine his life, it was like seeing two different layers of reality. As if Karl and I live in completely different worlds even though we live in the same town.
I can hardly imagine my life without a computer. My journal, our pictures, my writing, and of course there’s email and Facebook and my blog. Recipes. Directions. Instructions. How to clean off the big blue monkey someone drew with Sharpie on our vinyl fence once. (Magic Eraser + hair spray.) I listen to music on my computer and watch movies, read the news and find new books to read. Then there’s cell phones, MP3 players, tablets, laptops. Technology seems completely intertwined with modern life.
But Karl reminded me that it doesn’t have to be. He’s not the only person I’ve helped who doesn’t use computers, either. Every time I work in the Internet area I help someone who doesn’t know how to access digital photos other than just looking at them on the little camera screen or that you don’t have to press the Enter key at the end of the line when you’re using a word processor. And once I work through my frustration, annoyance, and surprise, I find myself a bit uncomfortable. Questioning, I suppose, how thoroughly technology is tangled into my existence.
I mean, on one hand, what I told that patron yesterday is true: it is inescapable. The people who need help because they don’t know how to get their resume from their computer at home onto the website of the company they are applying for seem, in my opinion, to not have many options. How do you find a job when you can’t use a computer? It’s a basic reality of our world whether you like it or not.
On the other hand, though. I can’t help thinking: what would it be like? To be off the grid, I mean. Mostly not a presence on the Internet, nowhere to be found online, and if you wanted to talk to me you’d have to call me. Or even stop by my house. Certainly I’d have more time for some things—reading, and even housework—without the tug of technology.
Really: I don’t want to be like Karl. I am grateful that my life brought me plenty of technological experiences so that I can function comfortably in contemporary existence. I don’t take my knowledge for granted nor overlook the fact that it is because of those experiences that I can function, technology-wise. I don’t want to lose out on opportunities because of computer illiteracy.
But I know, deep in my heart, there is something to be said for the simplicity of life that must exist without so much technology so deeply embedded. I know I waste too much time putzing around online. I know my kids do, too. So whenever I encounter someone like Karl, I try to use it as one might an encounter with someone from another planet. What can I learn from this being who lives so differently than I do? And sometimes that knowledge is this: back off, unplug, live more, click less.