Southern Seen — Byting the apple

Southern Seen — Byting the apple

By: Larry McGehee

Old friends often dub me a “Luddite”. The Luddites were an English sect opposed to technology, somewhat like strict groups of Amish and Mennonites. Part of my anti-machine bias was inherited. Granddaddy didn’t have a car or a tractor on the farm. When I gave him a ballpoint pen for Christmas (which was also his birthday), he gave it back, preferring the pencil stub in his coat pocket. He was a big FDR supporter, but one of the last to have electricity run into the farmhouse. Late in life, he did get a cranked wall-phone and battery-operated radio. He never let possessions, especially machines, possess him. By the time he died, all of his earthly holdings fit into one old leather satchel. In a half-hearted sort of way, I have been particularly anti-computers. That grew out of an earlier resistance to adding machines and calculators. I felt that any machine that does your math for you would make your mind deteriorate. All the algebra and trigonometry we had to take in high school–we were told–was supposed to make us able to reason and to think. It seemed to me that thinking would be jeopardized if school children started bringing machines to class instead of pencils, erasers, and brains. Then computers came along, and for consistency’s sake I had to argue against them, too. If using pocket calculators in class was like bombing your brain, I argued, then the magnified effect of a computer would be like a nuclear holocaust. Sooner or later no one would be left with powers of logic and calculation except the machines. I miscalculated the consequences of the coming of computers, and I here publicly confess my grievous fault. My fall from grace was caused by temptation. I had inveighed so long and lustily against computers that, Elmer Gantry-like, I finally tasted the forbidden fruits of the Apple. I have as much guilt for being a computer convert as someone else would have for falling off the wagon. Oh, I have excuses for the transgression: “Others” made me do it! The peer pressure of being surrounded by computer freaks at work and the embarrassment of being considered illiterate in front of our daughters at home got to me. So, too, did the feeling that computer-ese is a foreign language and that I was missing much of what is being said by increasing numbers of people. They were speaking in tongues; their COBAL, PLATO, and PASCAL languages and my King James and Shakespearean prose were from worlds apart. Test this alien-ness for yourself. If someone tells you “there are bugs in the hardware,” what image does it conjure for you? How about “interface” or “compatibility?” Does “software” mean “clothing?” But the main reason for my conversion is that my basic argument against computers was annihilated. For, contrary to robbing the human brain of its exercise, they stretch and tax the gray matter to limits never tested. The computing processes are so multiple and so complex that no matter how much the ads say they are as “easy as a-b-c” the only way to use them is to out-think them. Unlike a pencil or even a manual typewriter, which merely functions by rote as the user subconsciously directs it, a computer requires dialogue between it and its user that pushes the user into mental exercises. Logic and creativity get pushed to new heights, and soon the user is hooked. Now that I think about it, my conversion to computers comes from my grandmother’s side of the family. While Granddaddy was out trying to get around and along without wheels, she was at home working crosswords and jigsaws by the light of a kerosene lamp or fireplace. Those who have crossword and jigsaw habits quickly understand why a computer is so seductive. Even so, a PC, no matter how “Personal,” is still a machine. I haven’t backslid enough to see it as some of my fanatic colleagues do, as a substitute wife that is an improvement upon the real thing because of the power to shut it up or off. It is not, as some claim, “user- friendly.” And it needs not, if one is careful, make a slave of the user for whom it was supposed to slave. As with other potential vices, a computer is a dangerous thing if it consumes you and becomes habitual. Used in moderation it can be a servant, a teacher, and an outlet for recreation, with few harmful side-effects. I doubt seriously that we can return to being a non-computer society. For that reason, we ought to be anticipating the addiction problems with which our laws will have to deal sooner or later. Ultimately we shall need rehab centers, some place where electricity and technology are banned. Does the U.S. still own any islands?? Larry McGehee, professor-emeritus at Wofford College, may be reached by e-mail at mcgeheelt@wofford.edu Published in The Messenger 5.27.08

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