“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 . . .?
“Critical thinking,” says author Tom Nichols, “is that thing that says ‘Start asking questions. Don’t be afraid of where they go.’ It is okay to change your mind.”
Nichols, who has changed his mind more than once but has never not been a critical thinker, was in San Francisco recently promoting his latest book, The Death of Expertise: The Campaign Against Established Knowledge and Why It Matters. He is more than a little concerned that the acceptance of untruths and outright lies, and the increasing willingness to ignore experts on all subjects, is going to get our democracy into deep trouble.
“There’s been a change,” he says, “from ‘I doubt you; explain.’ to ‘I know more than you do.’”
Nichols is unquestionably an expert himself – a professor at the U.S. Naval War College, at the Harvard Extension School, a Sovietologist, and a five-time undefeated Jeopardy! champion (among a long list of other credentials on his Wikipedia page) – and sees many reasons for the death of expertise. A virtual epidemic of narcissism, for one; technology in many of its uses and abuses for another. But the danger of the “collapse of expertise,” he says, is that it can easily lead to mob rule. And poof, there goes democracy. Nichols is concerned, as he writes in The Death of Expertise, that “Americans have reached a point where ignorance, especially of anything related to public policy, is an actual virtue.”
House minority leader Nancy Pelosi was also in town recently, talking a good bit about facts and truth herself. Unsurprisingly, Pelosi feels there is not much respect for either in the present administration. She opened her remarks with a report on President Trump’s first meeting with congressional leaders. “The first thing the president said was, ‘Do you know I won the popular vote?’ Now first, that wasn’t relevant to what we were there for. And it wasn’t true.”
Pelosi repeatedly said she felt things could get done, including on many issues that would require cooperation between Democrats and Republicans. “But we have to start with facts. Data. Truth.”
Nichols says the best way to get the facts – “the real story” – is to read multiple sources. (“I read the Washington Post, New York Times, and Wall Street Journal.”) And to those who would say, “I don’t have time,” Nichols has one answer: “Yes. You. Do.”
If the issues and the problems are complex, Nichols suggests that part of the answer is sublimely simple: “We have to be nicer,” he says. “We have to believe we want the best for each other.”
That has, in a not-so-distant past still fondly recalled by more than a few Americans, been true.
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.
Technology, for anyone born after 1980, is part of your language. But the rest of us? It’s like learning to speak in tongues. And learning curves do not always move smoothly upward.
Suppose you grew up thinking a drop down window simply had a broken sash cord – if you’re born after 1980 you probably don’t know what sash cords are anyway – and right click was something you did with castanets? And your brain is wired to hit the return lever at the end of every line, but you’re suddenly supposed to know where the tool bar with the back button is, and you thought a back button was something that fastened to a loop at the top of your blouse? You get the picture.
Well, no, you don’t get the picture, that’s the problem.
Getting the picture onto the blog post takes us right back to the language issue: we know those free-use illustrations are out there, but where and how to find them and — more to the point — how to get them from Point A (wherever they are) to Point B (above) is hidden in the mystery language of WordPress and the internet. Friends, some born after 1980, try to help. They install PhotoBucket, they study Windows Live Photo Gallery, they try to explain Flickr or Paint or Pinterest. The learning curve flatlines.
Enter my techie friend Ryan. He may have been born before 1980 but not much before if so. Ryan speaks WordPress.
All you have to know, he explains, is to Google the topic, click on Images, make the magic Usage Rights appear by clicking on the Search Tools, save to your Desktop (which used to be a flat pine surface.) Then on your WordPress dashboard (which used to be in the car) click Edit on the screen below Title, click once on the photo, which brings up the magic pencil, which will lead you to the boxes, and more pencils and a few more choices. Simple. Of course.
Here’s the bottom line: I hope you like those THREE illustrations.