Magazine | May 3, 2010, Issue

Cyber Psycho

Every Churchill biography contains the story about the Duke of Marlborough who finally discovered how to use a toothbrush. Getting ready for bed, he brushed his teeth but nothing happened. No foam, no minty taste, no smooth clean surfaces. Nothing. Being a member of a class not known for its submissive patience, he hurled the toothbrush across the room and bellowed “Bloody thing won’t work!” Actually it worked fine as long as his valet squeezed out the toothpaste onto the brush for him. He had been doing this for years, but on this one night he forgot, leaving his master stranded helplessly amid the maddening frustrations of advanced technology.

Flash forward to the Toyota with a mind of its own and we can immediately identify with the duke. The bell tolled for what remains of American sanity when an AP reporter wrote that any modern car is “basically a computer on wheels.” Like the drowning man who is said to see his whole life in his final moment, we saw all the buggy software, all the incomprehensible dialog boxes, all the troubleshooting screens of our digital existence coming at us like rabid bats.

It was a turning point like no other. Toyota might be a foreign car but Americans still think of ourselves as “the car people” even though Detroit is now a burned-out, boarded-up, deserted shell of a city so overgrown with weeds that it looks like a scene from Life After People. Where to go for reassurance? Certainly not the Toyota hearings; the mythical Real Live Person, the Robin Hood of our time, is nowhere to be found among politicians and corporate executives. All we got was what we always get: that blind American optimism that dismisses little glitches and promises bigger and better whatevers. In this case, ads with a public-service twist that proudly predicted cars in the near future would be even more dependent on computers. Why, they will steer themselves back into the lane if the driver swerves! Or stop themselves if the driver dozes! (Or even if the driver doesn’t; glitch happens.)

If we keep this up, it’s only a matter of time before some driver will lust after the talking-directions lady and demand oral sex from the dashboard.

The classic nervous breakdown always has strong theatrical overtones, like the Mad Scene in Lucia di Lammermoor or the Gothic spinster in the attic walking up and down the floor wringing her hands and crying, but they pale beside the state-of-the-art American nervous breakdown: “Low Virtual Memory. Your Windows is adding more. Please wait.” Even if you know what this means, no good can come of getting people used to such concepts. What can’t become virtual? Is everything virtual? This is an attack on reality itself. So is taking a picture with your telephone. Yes, it works, but the idea of it is insane. We are moving inexorably toward the blithe, unthinking acceptance of state-of-the-art drooling.

I am absolutely convinced the tea-party contingent that latched on to Jefferson’s bit about the need to water the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants from time to time was inspired not by any close examination of history but simply because it reminded them of the Refresh button.

A sure sign of anxiety is the compulsion to keep fiddling with something instead of leaving it alone. The incessant redesigning that consumes the high-tech world, especially Windows, is thought to be exclusively profit-driven, but since we already know that it does not result in an improved product, there must be another reason for it. I say it’s motivated by the same free-floating fear that drives the woman who never stops redecorating her house. Finding herself near the end of her project, she tears it all up and starts all over again because if she ever finished, she would be judged, and worse, have to judge herself.

#page#High-tech was bound to appeal to us because coping with it, however painful, is a way to seem intelligent without running the risk of being an intellectual, a perfect American compromise that lets us feel brainy when in fact we are wallowing in the primordial ooze of educational regression: Nobody knows anything but we’re still inventing lots of great new stuff even though we’re collapsing.

We also like it because it’s so complicated to sign up for that it makes us feel more important and sophisticated than we actually are: “bundle . . . $100 cash back . . . offer valid until . . . one-year agreement required . . . other terms and conditions apply . . . early-termination-date charge . . . plus taxes and fees.” Struggle through enough of this, says William Shatner, and “you’re negotiating!”

Above all, cyberchosis offers us a solution for our great diversity. Now that there are so many different kinds of people in America that we no longer have a national identity, we can pull it all together merely by running Defrag.

I still say the Toyota crisis is the point of no return. Now that cars are too complicated for anyone but an MIT engineer to fix, the end of positive masculinity is upon us. When boys can’t tinker with cars they seek their simple solutions elsewhere. It’s already started. What else are workplace and school shootings?

Meanwhile, I am fighting cyberchosis in my own eccentric ways, by writing my personal letters by hand and worrying about stamp collectors. Really, if everybody is e-mailing what will become of stamp collectors? I’m not one myself but they tend to be a breed I like: patricians and royalty, like FDR and George V. My heart is with them.

I am also indulging my latest fantasy: I enter the offices of AOL or Microsoft or one of those places that “bundle” things and put a gun to my head.

“If you don’t give me a real live person,” I cackle, “I’ll give you a real dead one.”

It’s a Pyrrhic victory. They give me a real live person, but all the news shows call me a negotiator.

– Florence King can be reached at P.O. Box 7113, Fredericksburg, VA 22404.

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