Rude Awakening

How’s this for a rude awakening? The other morning I was in the kids’ room as my son was waking up. He did one of those great morning stretches where his toes pushed against the slat of the bunk bed railing, bending it just a bit, and he emitted a sustained guttural groan that sounded like an idling tractor. His body then relaxed completely for a split second, before he propped himself up on his elbows and said through puffy eyes, “Dad, I just had the best dream. I was playing backyard baseball.”

After I asked him if he’d gotten dirty and skinned his knees in his dream (two of the best things about baseball, in my view), he immediately corrected me. “Not real baseball, Dad. The CD-ROM!” I should have realized that Backyard Baseball required capital letters, for it was the name of a computer game he’d been coveting. Having never had a cyberspace dream, I barraged him with questions in order to discern whether he was a character inside the game itself, or if he was simply sitting at the keyboard in this dream. It was the former, and there was something about hitting a game winning homer and being doused with Gatorade.

As I tried to recall if I’d ever dreamed about singing in the Partridge Family’s garage or being a castaway on Gilligan’s Island, I pondered the significance of having new technologies affect our conscious and unconscious affairs. While the computer has significantly altered my generation by being injected, or adopted, into our lives, it will be just another part of the cultural furnishings for my children’s generation, the way television was for me. My hope is that it will function as a useful tool rather than an anchor, an appendage rather than an albatross.

But then again, what if it comes to actually replace an appendage? For example, past technological advances made for smoother modes of travel, which replaced walking. Could it be that we won’t need to use our hands much because of advancements in computers? And what will that do to us? Could Cat Stevens have been right when he sang that if we ever lose our hands, we won’t have to work no more?

Certainly, computerized automation and robotic technology has already replaced humans, and their hands, in our factories and warehouses. That’s where the clearest indication of the economic shift from the Industrial Age to the Information Age lies. Hands and brawn are essential in an agrarian economy or an industrial economy, but in an economy that trades in information it doesn’t take much strength to push a button on a computer keyboard. And that’s not even taking into consideration the voice-activated technology that’s peeking around the corner. Soon we’ll be talking to our computers rather than touching those buttons. Our hands could be stuffed in our pockets for all our computers could care. And we’ll be talking to our homes as well, barking commands as we enter our front doors: “Lights on. Dim down. Music up. Channel Two.” That way our hands will be free to carry those grocery bags. But wait a minute, we will have ordered those groceries online, so they’ll just sort of show up without us. Someone else will be schlepping them.

The experts say we’ll be working in our homes more, many of us parked at computer terminals two doors down from the bedroom. In John Irving’s novel, The World According to Garp, he paints a picture of the whole neighborhood lit up by the blue haze of the televisions trickling out of everyone’s windows. Will it be like this with our computers? Eyes fixed? Computers shaking hands? Our voice-activated, digital tongues trilling along?

Let’s examine some everyday elements where the voice-activated computer might displace our need for hands. If we’re “telecommuting” to work and not leaving our homes, we could simply say good morning to our computer and have it provide the morning’s news. Instead of wading through all the nonsense and coating our fingers with newsprint, we can have our electronic paper tailored to give us simply what we want: world news, stock quotes, sports. We won’t even have to worry about putting on a bathrobe to get the paper from the front steps because it won’t be on the steps; it’ll be on the screen. So, aside from not needing our own hands, all the hands of all the humans who used to get our morning paper to us will no longer be needed either. No more delivery person on a bike. No more truck driver. No more loaders on the dock.

If we’re not leaving the house to go to work, is it possible we won’t need those 2.2 cars in the driveway to get us to and from? Does that translate into fewer mechanics and their expert hands? Fewer roads and those who build them? Less downtown office space and the hands that shape that steel? And what of gender equity in the workforce? Could computers be the great equalizers? When the economy calls for less tilling and hefting, less heavy lifting and hardened hands, will there be more room for women? Are we men ready? What will we do with our hands?

In Arthur Miller’s award-winning drama, Death of a Salesman, Willy Loman did one thing well: he built steps onto the house, and they lasted. When he ignored the fact that he should have been working with his hands, he became cursed. He tried to fake it, but by not doing what came naturally, he destroyed himself. He couldn’t produce. He couldn’t get his garden to grow, he had no successful sales calls, and he was left flailing for answers. The world changed, and he didn’t fit. So, he stepped out of it.

Our world is also changing rapidly. The pace will certainly quicken when the baby boom generation, which currently wields political might but has one foot planted in “how things used to be,” becomes displaced by the echo boom, their children, who have been reared in a world of information technology and cyberspace.

What will we do in the face of this change? Will we surrender like Willy Loman? Will we accept the change gracefully, welcoming talking computers and turning our backs on our hands and our handiwork? Or will we fight this thing tooth and nail? Maybe we’ll hold fast to the safety of what we know, and avoid too much computerized progress. An ever-present reminder of our unwillingness to welcome change is the QWERTY system on our keyboards. That’s the configuration of the typing keys for the left hand. The order of letters was made intentionally difficult because the human hand was too fast for the early typewriting mechanism, and the arms would get stuck. Now that the technology has caught up, we could make the configuration easier on the hands and more efficient, but it would require re-training. We have, so far, chosen not to pursue that growth.

I hope that we don’t fight computer advancements too stridently, for they appear to present some profound possibilities. However, I also hope that we don’t forget the beauty of the human hand – opposable thumb and all – and the wonders it can create. As the son of a cabinetmaker and carpenter, I’m woefully inept when it comes to working with my hands. I built a sandbox for my kids, and I can throw a circuit breaker switch, but that’s about the extent of my ability. This reality has given me supreme envy and admiration for those who can create and accomplish with their hands. From the mechanic to the musician, the sculptor to the surgeon, the field hand to the firefighter. We can’t allow ourselves to get too far removed from the tangible, the touchable. We need to keep things within our grasp.

What if this technology does get us moving too fast? What if we start spinning out of control and get to the point where we engage in practices because we can rather than because we should? What if we end up destroying what we have? It will be the capable ones, the handy ones, who have what it takes to bring us back, for a computer can’t create from nothing.

Pablo Picasso said computers aren’t good for anything; they only give you answers. And here I am left with all these questions, trembling, and feeling like I can’t hold on.