“Welcome to the family!” chirped my new Inbox message. It was filled with so many little hearts and emojis I initially felt I must have been adopted into some friendly group sharing my religious or philosophical leanings. Its presentation, which would have been entirely fitting for such an invitation, was overwhelming in its warm-fuzziness.
Actually, all I had done was order a watchband.
Unwilling to pay the highway robbery prices that the digital watch people wanted for a replacement band at their store, and tired of my cute young manicurist wearing herself out with futile efforts to clean my old watchband, I had gone on an online search. There are more watchband choices out there than lipstick shades. But I persevered. On about page 43 I found a band identical to the highway-robbery-priced one, clicked off my $12.99 and hit Send. That, apparently, granted me entrance into the family.
Actually, this is not exactly a one-time thing. It appears that every online purchase I have made, plus just about every cause I have supported, has brought me into the circle of extended-family items (Watchband? You’re going to love these earphones!) or communications. “Thank you for your support” tends to be followed by daily updates and hourly pleas for further support, not to mention invitations to support like-minded causes. And if you’d like to keep your watchband selection private? Forget it. Facebook now knows. Every company related to watchbands now knows. You will be so bombarded with watchband-related ads in between posts from your real life Facebook friends you may find yourself saying, one day, “What the heck, maybe I should order that power cord; my power cord is frayed . . .” Resist that urge. Go to Walgreen’s and buy it; they already know everything about you from all those Club Card purchases anyway.
Here’s the thing. Who among us has not purchased something online, Liked something on Facebook or Instagram, or sent off a contribution to a worthy cause? In truth (unless you subscribe to Rudy Giuliani’s assessment that truth is not truth) each of those transactions immediately welcomed us into some extended, digitally-connected family, and 99% of the universe is, by similar fates, right there with us. It is a downright incestuous situation.
Say you have a daughter or granddaughter who flunked out of her expensive school and caused severe friction between you. Now imagine you’ve been dead for a few years – OK, this page is all about imagination just now – and that errant offspring just finished a PhD program, with honors. She creates a hologram of you, calls it into being and holds up the graduation photos. “What do you think!,” she asks? “Oh,” you say, in your formerly mortal voice, “I’m so terribly proud of you. Congratulations!” You smile broadly, and your offspring smiles back.
Welcome to the 2030s. Or probably early 2020s. Holograms are here, and the potential for use in after-death encounters is just one element of this technological wonder. That vision of the end-of-life/afterlife was offered by Sierra College professor Kim Bateman, at the recent conference I was privileged to attend, in a fascinating presentation titled “Dialogues with the Digital Dead.” Bateman suggested useful possibilities such as “allowing the dying to finish unfinished business and the bereaved to more vividly imagine their loved ones without a physical body.” But her intent was also to look at “ethical concerns about consent, privacy, and the emotional safety of those participating” in what today seems more science fiction than potentially useful technology. Conference participants had a lot to say.
If you watched the halftime show at this year’s Super Bowl (I did not, so this is hearsay) you saw a performance by the wildly popular artist Prince. Since he has been dead for some time now, it was not really possible to book him – but it was possible to create a hologram, and that was what you saw. Someone at our conference said Prince had actually been opposed to holograms – which raises ethical issues he is no longer able to discuss.
But here we are. These incredibly realistic holograms can be digitally, posthumously, created by, say, your children or grandchildren, Bateman explained. The computer digs through your electronic history: every email, voice mail, text, Facebook post, Instagram picture, etc, etc, etc. What emerges is the pre-death you.
Should this bring about a posthumous reconciliation between you and your formerly deadbeat offspring, that seems a clear benefit of the technology. But as with most questions surrounding end-of-life issues today, a lot is not so clear. Your surviving friends and relations will continue to grow and change after you die. Not so the holographic you. It has you frozen in time as the pre-death you. What if you had lived a little longer and decided a college education wasn’t all that important? Here’s your hologram being pleasant, but reconfirming the mortal you as a judgmental grandma.
As with other contemporary end-of-life issues covered at the Lisbon conference, this one raised a long list of questions. Would you want to be recreated in a hologram after you die? For how long after you’ve been gone? To whom should you leave instructions pro or con – or should you stay out of it and hope for the best? If a holograph of you is created, with whom would you want it to interact? Or are there those with whom you would specifically not want to interact, holographically speaking? Should you have the right to make these decisions yourself, while you’re still in the flesh?
If these questions seem all too spooky and futuristic, I apologize – but the spooky future is upon us.
“Take a minute to breathe,” my watch said. How did it know? This message arrived, unbidden, in the late afternoon of a day full of unpleasant chores, contentious meetings, unexpected crises and the usual daily events. It made me laugh. And breathe. Or at the very least, sigh.
I don’t know about this breathing business. If we aren’t doing it we’re definitely dead, or about to be, but the conscious breathing business – there may be something to it. So it is certainly worth a reminder or two.
(Anyone who knows me knows I would never spend actual money for a gadget that tells me to breathe; I helped with a study at the request of a friend, and we got to keep the watch. But I have to admit to a growing affection. This gadget knows stuff. After I finished working out in the park on the first day of San Francisco’s recent, obscene heat wave, it told me how far I’d walked, how much energy I’d expended, how high my heart rate had gone – and then it said, “It’s 96 degrees, dummy, what are you doing exercising in 96-degree heat? At your age??” Or something like that; I don’t remember its exact words. Of course, it doesn’t know everything. Such as, if I want to take a nap, shouldn’t it know I don’t want to be nudged to Stand after 15 minutes? I take it off for naps.)
But back to breathing.
Calm, measured, thoughtful breathing may be the only answer to finding peace in these days. North Korea firing nuclear missiles? Breathe. Hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, record-breaking heat waves and climate change deniers? Breathe. Air and water pollution, thanks to relaxed environmental regulations, threatening the very lives of your grandchildren? Breathe. And that latest tweet, post or whatever startling message from cyberspace? Breathe, breathe.
Perhaps someone who understands social media better than I could institute a new policy: No tweet, post or instant-photo can be fired off until the person behind it has taken three slow, deep breaths. Think about it. Such an action would require engaging the brain, and how much personal and national angst might be avoided if brains were required to be engaged in advance? A small reduction in lies, vulgarities and scary messages . . .?
“Almost everything will work again if you unplug it,” my good buddy Annie Lamott famously said, “including you.”
Heeding Lamott’s excellent advice, this writer has recently unplugged from a bunch of things. Huffington Post’s blogger roster. The list of ushers at 10 AM church services. Automatic evites to a bunch of meetings & gatherings I don’t really, really need to attend every month. Happily, this means simultaneously unplugging from a zillion email lists. Email lists for activist groups like MoveOn, Indivisible, Stand Up San Francisco, etc etc etc etc are something to tackle another day.
Unplugging even extended to regular blogging on this esteemed franjohns.net. But it’s still a joy to post when something worth posting comes to mind and time can be found. It’s also a joy to hear from readers who still read. (Most of all the email from someone I’ve never met who asked when I would be posting again on franjohns.net. Thanks, and here you are!)
Unplugging, though, is tricky. Technology still confounds. Much of life in today’s world must remain plugged in and operational: computers, printers, TV remotes, modems, iPhones and assorted other too-smart devices, home security systems, garage doors, you name it. For technologically challenged people like yours truly, having the passcodes for all these plus a lifetime of data stored in a cloud in the ethersphere for safety’s sake is a source of great comfort. One does not ever want to unplug from The Cloud.
Meanwhile there are the wasted hours on phones tapping through menus that, should you get to an end, lead to a recording that says “We’re sorry, but the office is closed. Please call again tomorrow.” And the wasted hours on the computer tapping through Help links that eventually lead to articles you do not have time to read, written by frustrated others who had a similar issue but probably nothing to say about yours.
Every now and then, though, one encounters a simple solution to a simple problem. This occurred recently when my lovely Surface computer blinked confusedly at me and went blank. The horror.
I dearly love my Surface. But I am a certified geezer and technologically inept. I did know I simply needed to shut it totally off & restart it. With my old laptop I did this by unplugging, and removing the battery. But my svelte little Surface has nothing so old school as a clunky, removable battery. I called the Microsoft number with fear and trepidation, figuring I’d be writing off the morning.
Within two minutes I reached an utterly charming young man. “Hold the Start button down,” he advised. “Keep holding it. Now we’ll just talk for a little while. You think 30 seconds isn’t very long, and it’s hard to figure out just how long it is.” Whereupon we had a pleasant exchange of several sentences about the fog in San Francisco. “OK,” he said then, “We’ve actually been talking for just over a minute. If you need to do this another time, just keep an eye on your watch. If you hold the button down for 30 seconds it will shut completely down.” This is valuable information.
And lo, when I pushed the Start button again, all was well, It just wanted to unplug.
The very lovely, 12-story building in which I have lived for four+ years – along with 90 other condo-owning geezers, sometimes more delicately referred to as “retirees” or “seniors” but let’s face it – is about to embark upon an exterior repair job that will run upwards of $3 million. Repair. Not build, or upgrade, or renovate. Repair. This building is slightly over 25 years of age. (Its owners average generally at least three times that; are WE getting $3+ million repair jobs? We wish.)
Our building exterior is a material known as EIFS, which stands for Exterior Insulation Finishing System. According to its Wikipedia page, EIFS is “a general class of non-load bearing building cladding systems that provides exterior walls with an insulated, water-resistant, finished surface in an integrated composite material system,” in case you care. I am on the Homeowners Association board of directors. For a writer whose undergraduate degree was in Art and who was born essentially without a left brain, I know more about EIFS than I ever wanted to know; I can absolutely promise you that.
EIFS is still quite commonly in use. But I think they have figured out something that early EIFS people overlooked: using paper in an exterior building material is a very bad idea. Guess what happens when the sealant shrinks and water gets in and there’s paper involved. Our EIFS people hadn’t figured that out yet.
Oh, well. What’s $3 or $4 million to fix a 25-year-old building? I do have to mention that the 4-story house we sold in order to move into this lovely building was itself built in 1905. Throughout a century or so of earthquakes and California rainy seasons (about half of which time it belonged to my husband and/or the two of us) our exterior repair ran to a few thousand dollars in repainting every six or eight years. It is hard not to mention that I grew up in Virginia, where 18th century buildings (still doing fine) dot the landscape.
No offense to the building industry, but what’s wrong with building buildings to last more than 25 years without 4’ by 8’ panels falling off (yes, two of them did, in a bad storm earlier this year) in the middle of the night?
This essay started out to be all about planned obsolescence. EIFS buildings perhaps are not deliberately designed to become obsolete in a decade or two; ours just happened to fall into that category. And the above just came to mind as I was starting to write. But about planned obsolescence. It has its own Wikipedia page. According to that page, it “tends to work best when a producer has at least an oligopoly” (which also has its own Wikipedia page.) It was inspired not by the building nightmare but by my recent experience with my beloved Epson printer/copier machine.
My beloved Epson WF 3520, age four years, took to printing in weird colors. After extensive cleaning of the print heads and performing other bewildering actions in the Systems menu, I persuaded it to resume printing photos (for instance) in absolutely true colors. But now it’s inserting disconcerting lines across peoples’ faces and stuff. Not good. I made a trip to the local Office Max where it was purchased four years ago to ask what else I might do to make the lines go away. The following conversation ensued:
Me: “Is there another Systems thing I can try?”
Office Max clerk (age 20-something): “Did you clean the print heads?”
Me (proudly): “Yes.”
OM: “And the nozzle?”
Me (hesitantly): “I think so.”
OM: “How long have you had it?”
Me: “About four years. I bought it here.”
OM: “Oh! That’s a pretty good run.”
Me (an aside that was totally lost on OM): “Clearly you weren’t born in 1933.”
But come on now, folks. Four years is a “pretty good run” for a $400+ machine used by a little old lady who doesn’t print out much beyond an occasional letter or a short story every now and then? God help us.
In the olden days, which are getting more olden by the day, there were places called Repair Shops. There was often one titled Mr. Fix-It. Alas, one does not repair anything much in this brave new day – one simply tosses it away and buys the latest new model. In San Francisco we do have a spot beloved by many, Phil’s Electric. (This is an unpaid plug.) If you have something electric that Phil’s can’t fix, you’ve probably worn it out over too many decades.
Things electronic, however, are another matter. You don’t wear out an iPhone 4, you discard it for the 5 and then the 6 and then the 7 and now maybe the 7S. Can you wear out a FitBit? Or an Apple Watch? Or any item gently referred to as a “device?” Nahh. You can, without undue effort, lose them to theft, ineptitude or malfunction. In the latter case – see above re my lovely Epson – the good news is that function can actually be restored in some cases.
Having just done an internet search I find there are more than a few electronic repair places in San Francisco, so perhaps all is not lost. There’s even one near Phil’s Electric.
It started innocently enough: I was complaining about being short of breath at a dinner party. Several physicians were at the table; one suggested that it might be possible to increase lung capacity by doing exercises with a spirometer. “I’m not a pulmonologist,” he said, “so I don’t know; it’s just a thought.”
The thought was planted. I fired off an email to my primary care physician (we love Kaiser Permanente) asking if she knew of such a thing, and/or might refer me to someone to give it a try. She replied with a request that I come into the office so she could evaluate me. Well, grump, grump; all I wanted was a quick fix, but anyway. It takes all of about 10 minutes to get to the Kaiser Medical Center. I arrived for an 11 AM appointment.
The good Dr. Tang patiently explained that she did not prescribe via email. And because it had been 2 or 3 years since we last examined the heart/lung situation she would like to do another work-up, to see about this shortness of breath business. She went very lightly on the issue of my being 83 years old for heavens sakes, although she did mention she had 60-ish patients in worse shape than I. (This is a compliment, coming from one’s physician whom one reminds of her mother, although I was still looking for some magic way to walk uphill without having to stop and catch my breath.)
She then ordered a zillion blood tests, an EKG and a chest X-ray. Still grumping a little, I set out for all these, vowing that if even the smallest of lines appeared I would just come do it all another day. It took me roughly 3 minutes to get in for the EKG, less for the X-ray, and when I got down one more floor to the lab and pulled ticket #372 the automated voice was already saying “Now serving #372 at Station #4.” After dutifully following all these instructions, I went home to take a nap.
Within an hour, a voice mail message arrived from my doctor. “Your tests are fine, I don’t want to alarm you. But I’d like for you to come back in right away. Just tell the front desk you’re here.” Alarmed, I set out for the Medical Center once again. Lung cancer. Definitely. A spot on the lung showed up on the X-ray, and I will definitely die of lunch cancer in the immediate future.
Fortunately, the 10-minute drive didn’t allow too much time to contemplate my impending demise. “No, your X-ray is fine!,” she said. “Your lungs are fine! It’s just this one test that came back pretty high. It’s a screening test for possible blood clot. These tests are set very high because we don’t want to miss anything. Still, I want to be sure there’s no clot there that could indicate a pulmonary embolism causing your shortness of breath.” OK, I prefer not to have clots floating around in my bloodstream.
So does Dr. Tang. Whereupon she ordered a CT scan – which meant walking uphill a block to the hospital where they have those fancy machines (and radiologists to read what the machines report.) “Once you’re done,” she said, “come back to the office and as soon as we have the results we can talk about them.” I set out on the brief uphill walk. Pulmonary embolism. Definitely. Isn’t that what did in my mother at age 70? Embolism, aneurism, something blood-clotty. I’ll probably die of pulmonary embolism before I get back down this hill.
It is now close enough to closing time that most Kaiser people are closing up. But the CT scan people wait for me, hook me up to the dye thing and run me back and forth through the machine. I walk back downhill, mildly optimistic because nobody gasped while I was getting dressed in the cubicle several feet from the scan people. With nobody now at the receptionist desk, I walk into the nursing/examining room area and tell a smiling nurse that I’ll be outside if Dr. Tang needs me. And sure enough, in another 5 minutes – not enough time to consider calling the crematorium – she comes bursting through the door saying she’s so glad I waited.
“As I said, these screens are set very high so that we don’t miss anything,” she begins. “In your case, there was nothing to miss. It was just a false positive.” I exhale. We talk briefly about how I might increase my exercise regimen if possible – which might even address the shortness of breath issue; I concede that I am, indeed, 83.
On the way home, no longer planning to die in the immediate future, I count the cost: six hours, several hundred dollars co-pay. And I give thanks for our Kaiser membership, modern medical technology and my good doctor.
Universal Access to All Knowledge. In other words, let’s gather up and digitize everything on the internet, and offer it to everyone on the planet. For free. Every book in every library, every website, movie – oh, and throw in music: vinyl records, CDs. In as many languages as possible.
Some people were doubtful this could be done. But then, they probably didn’t know Brewster Kahle. Kahle, according to his Wikipedia page, is an American computer engineer, Internet entrepreneur and internet activist. And perhaps foremost, he is an advocate of universal access to all knowledge – to which end he founded the Internet Archive in 1996.
The Archive, consisting of a few billion items – it could be a few trillion by this writing – is now a non-profit library recognized by the Library of Congress. If you’re a human being with a digital device you can access anything within its collections. These are grouped within recognizable categories like ‘Old Time Radio,’ ‘Iraq War’ or ‘Television,’ and enigmatic other categories like ‘Electric Sheep’ and ‘Netlabels.’
This writer, whose left brain is minuscule, was only dimly aware of the Archive, despite the fact that some years ago it purchased, for its headquarters, a former Christian Science Church building in San Francisco which I pass every few days. But when Kahle’s wife Mary Austin, co-founder of San Francisco Center for the Book and someone (decidedly right/left brained) I am proud to call a friend, insisted I attend the 20th anniversary celebration not long ago, it seemed time to peek into it all.
A few hundred friends and supporters turned out for the celebration, stopping by the taco truck at the front steps and going from there to stations offering demonstrations of archived music and video games, planetary digitizations, scanners that put books onto digital shelves in a matter of moments. Many of the Archive employees who work from areas around the globe – this writer talked at length with a sharp young lady from Toronto – were on hand to help explain things, and enjoy the reunion. The Wayback Machine (more than 279 billion web pages saved over time) was a crowd favorite, as was the Live Music archive (6,991 collections: rock, blues, classics, big band . . .) Some of those last were comprehensible to this reporter; other areas where the beeps and blinks of giant servers and assorted machines were connecting us all to the digital universe – well, what can I say?
But I have my library card! Open Library: We lend e-books worldwide for free. You can get one for yourself. Open Library has over a million ebook titles.
You might also want to support this ambitious undertaking and its latest safeguard project: creating a copy of Internet Archive’s digital collections in another country. Kahle and friends are building the Internet Archive of Canada “because lots of copies keeps stuff.” In other words, one more assurance of universal access to all knowledge. Free. And private. Internet Archive does not accept ads (which could track your behavior) or collect your IP address.