What do you get in this Crisis Magazine classic when you combine Peter Kreeft with a computer? A very entertaining meltdown.
Make no mistake: I do not merely hate computers. I loathe, fear, despise, curse, and have constant torture and dismemberment fantasies about them. I know there are others out there like me, an entire unorganized underground. I’ve talked to some of them, in conspiratorial whispers. We are not cyberterrorists — viruses hurt us more than anyone else. But we need a support network. We need a manifesto.
This isn’t it.
The university that employs me gave every one of its nearly 1,000 professors a free computer. Having had no luck with IBM PCs in the past, I asked for an Apple. “They’re user-friendly,” said friendly users.
One fact should have made me suspicious: Computers are the only thing the university has ever given away. It doesn’t even give away free books. Just think about it: Who gives expensive stuff away? Missionaries and drug dealers.
Oh, the devil gave away an apple, too. And look what came of that. But apparently no one remembers. So here I sit with my Apple, and of course it’s inedible. I have had it for three days now and haven’t yet achieved the lofty goal of being able to plug it in.
In quest of that distant utopia, I’ve found every accessory conceivable by the mind of man — as well as several that are not — but not anything as simple as a plug and a wire. Seven different experts have recommended seven different things to “solve my problem,” including routers, ethernets, “airports,” a different service provider, a separate modem, special instructional courses, and buying a new computer.
I am told I can get instructions on how to plug my Apple in from the Apple Web site on the Internet. But to get into that, I need to plug my Apple into the Internet. Gotcha!
So I turned it on from the battery. And before the battery wore out, I got past the first gate of the giant’s castle. At this point, the screen demands my “user name and password.” I have already been assigned two different “user names,” but the computer accepted neither. I finally figured out my true “user name.” (I will not tell you how, but I will say this: It was much more difficult than in the fantasy video games, in which all you have to do is outwit a leprechaun, steal its gold, bribe the wicked witch, seize the magic sword, and slay the giant ogre.) I then clicked on “log in,” and — and the arrogant &*^% laughed at me. The light on the screen shook back and forth, glowing and glimmering like the face of a department-store Santa.
I went back to the Apple store for help. But of course the computer people there were not capable of understanding a question like How Do You Make It Work? And by the way, am I the first to notice that computer people are eerily computer-like… so polite, so programmed, so humorless? Clearly, they’ve made computers in their own image.
After three days of unrelenting failure, I marched into the office of those generous university people who gave me the computer and plunked it down on their desk, together with all its tentacled, alien accessories. “How much do I have to pay you to take this beast away from me?” I asked. “It’s a protection racket, right?”
No, thankfully, the takeaway was free. But of course there was a catch: Everyone in the university has to have a computer, either Apple or PC. We have freedom of choice — so long as we choose between Beelzebub and Mephistopheles.
And that’s how I returned to the snuggly arms of Bill Gates and his monopoly.
Despite my ordeal, I had not lost hope. “My name is Peter,” I told myself, “and the Hell of Gates will not prevail against me.” After all, after a mere twelve years of Herculean labors, I have actually figured out how to use Microsoft Word. Here’s the secret: You must trick the computer. If it knows you’re indenting, or paragraphing, or numbering, it will correct you. Only by doing something else entirely will the computer give you what you really want.
Another successful trick is to visualize the computer screen as a map of the United States, and then translate all the incredibly uninteresting computer instructions into commands like:
1. Click on the little square gray box with the “x” in it that appears at Seattle, Washington.
2. If the screen changes and three white rectangles appear in Minneapolis, then click on the “x” in the westernmost extremity of the northernmost rectangle.
3. If the moon is not full, you will see everything on the screen quiver with fear for a second, disappear, and then reappear like the Living Dead from the tomb, and a large coffin-shaped box will appear in New Orleans.
4. Do not click on it, for if you do, you’ll get a large gray message extending from Denver to Atlanta that says you have performed an illegal operation. It will also declare a “permanent fatal error” and may threaten a complete shutdown, or a meltdown.
5. If all else fails, pray to St. Michael the archangel. Let him deal with it.
When Xerox Machines Strike
My enemy isn’t just IBM or Apple; it’s everything digital. I am allergic to digitalia.
For example, some years ago our department got its first digital Xerox machine. The brand wasn’t actually Xerox, but we called it that because the generic term “reproduction machine” made it sound like a Mormon father. (The old unit was a big, ugly contraption made by the A. B. Dick Company — I won’t tell you what we called that one.)
I kept jamming the new machine — I alone. I knew that it recognized me, probably by the smell of my fear. I tested my hypothesis scientifically, as follows, with our department secretary present:
I pushed button B. It jammed. The secretary fixed the jam. She pushed button B. It did not jam. I pushed button B. It jammed. The secretary fixed the jam. She pushed button B. It did not jam. I pushed button B. It jammed. You get the idea. Groundhog Day.
Another secretary watched this demonstration of obvious supernatural influence with a peasant’s skepticism of miracles. She said, “Peter, this is nonsense. I’m going to get to the bottom of it. Push the button again while I’m leaning over it, looking inside.” I did. The machine did not jam. Instead, it squirted a jet of black ink at her, ruining the expensive new silk blouse she’d bought that morning for a party that night.
We called in the Xerox people to fix their spawn. When they arrived, we told them what happened. They didn’t believe us, even though there were three eyewitnesses. “It is physically impossible for this machine to squirt ink,” said the Xerox man. He was probably right. Of course, with Satan all things are possible.
The Great Computer Conspiracy
About ten years ago, a man phoned me, identifying himself as “one of the six most intelligent men in the world according to the New York Times.” He had authored a best-selling book on the dangers of the computer revolution and had read a line in one of my books that identified me as a possible co-conspirator. He tried to convince me, in all seriousness, that the Abolition of Man was imminent at the hands of the faceless, impersonal mind of universal cyberspace. Its strategy was amazingly simple: Get everyone to voluntarily reformat all human thinking from analog to digital patterns. Once nondigital thinking ceases, there will be only one Thinker, and each of us will be a cell — or a digit — in the single giant digital brain.
I got off the phone as soon as I could, convinced the man was crazy as all hell. I now suspect he was a prophet.
A few years ago, the SAT people dropped the “analogies” part of their universal test, because no one could do it anymore. The minds of the computer literate are no longer literate. Indeed, people often ask me how students have changed over my 40 years of teaching. The most dramatic change is in logic. Students used to find ordinary logic fairly easy and mathematical logic (digital logic) fairly hard. Now it’s exactly the opposite.
If there’s a longer line than usual at a store’s cash register, you can be pretty sure they just installed a new, superefficient computer network. Whenever your car’s fuel exhaust system, the bank, the library, the phone, City Hall, or the U.S. Army doesn’t work, you can expect the same excuse.
And have you ever met a single human being who has actually been helped by clicking on the “Help” icon?
I grant there’s nothing conclusive here. But still, food for thought.
Here’s one more morsel: When we used quill pens, marriages were indissoluble, like the words we wrote on the paper. People took their words seriously then. They were set in stone, like cuneiform. (I’ll bet the ancient Babylonians didn’t have many divorces.) Then came fountain pens, and then ballpoint pens, and typewriters, and electronic typewriters, and word processors… With each step, divorce multiplied. Computers are the final step. Words are now as ephemeral as little glimmers of light on a screen, effortlessly changeable. No-fault editing and no-fault divorce are two sides of the same thought pattern.
The sacredness of words — especially promises, especially the wedding vow — is the glue that holds society together. For promises bind together people, and bind together the generations, and bind together the past, the present, and the future.
Therefore, to save families, and to save society, abolish computers and restore quill pens.
How 24 Out of 24 People Refused to Become Multimillionaires
I’m going to share a secret with you. It’s the simplest and easiest road to fabulous wealth available today. I’ve shared this idea with 24 computer people thus far, and not one has ever disagreed with any one of the following three facts:
1. If you do this, you will become very, very rich.
2. It is technologically very easy and cheap to do.
3. No one will ever do it.
Do what? Make a Dumb Computer (I call it a DC). What’s a DC, you ask? Simply put, it’s a computer that can do nothing but type… a typewriter with a screen, in effect. It’s not smarter than you are. It doesn’t lose your files. It doesn’t give you attitude. It’s a donkey — a dumb, slow, reliable servant.
Build this, my friend, and it will sell like crack cocaine.
Millions of dummies like me would love a DC. I could give you a hundred names of people who would gladly pay $2,000 for one. The market is vast… academics, authors, absentminded professors, poets, people with attention deficit disorder, conspiracy theorists who fear technology, pre-digital dinosaurs more than 50 years old, and people who don’t have kids to bail them out when they can’t find the computer’s “on” button.
But while the DC would sell, it’ll never be made. Computer people just don’t think that way.
Concluding Unscientific Postscript
Behind all my clowning is a serious point about how technology has changed not only the world but ourselves as well. You see, we are not only very, very good at technology. We are technology. It gives us our identity. It is what distinguishes our culture most spectacularly — and most successfully — from all others in history.
Furthermore, it’s stupid to fear technology. (A bird’s nest is a form of technology.) It’s even stupid to fear computers — our brains are computers, after all. And so I do not recommend that we become Luddites, but saints; that is, I counsel detachment. We need not teetotalers but designated drivers at the digital orgy.
Of course, I don’t really believe in a Great Conspiracy either. My concern isn’t that computer technology is an alien, but that it is not — that it’s our own new self-created identity, our voluntary self-encrutching. I fear that perhaps we’ve fallen for a great irony: King Arthur using Excalibur as a cane instead of a weapon.
Already there are many computer people who feel more at home in virtual reality than in reality itself. But reality has the remarkable power of forcing us to live in it whether we like it or not, and even whether we know it or not. Flesh dreaming that it is spirit does not cease to be flesh.
And if reality is computer technology’s first casualty, time is its second. Now that our lives are computerized, we all have less free time, not more. Computers are the apogee of efficiency, but all the time they have saved us — where did it go? I have badgered dozens of “experts” in all fields with this simple child’s question: Where has the time saved by all our time-saving devices gone? So far only one person has answered it: Pascal, the inventor of the world’s first working computer. (Malcolm Muggeridge said that is the one unforgivable sin that prevents his canonization.) Pascal’s answer, in a word, is “diversion”: diversion from ourselves and from the emptiness of our over-full lives.
And this reveals the third and final casualty of computer technology: self-knowledge. We demand external fullness to cover up the internal emptiness, constant noise to cover up the sound of silence. Thus we multiply mice to drive away the uncomfortable elephants of Fear and Death and God. We have become masters of self-deception.
As for me, I’m done with it. I’ve found my way out with a relic as rare as a chastity belt: a beautiful little manual typewriter. It has no will, no devious designs, no nefarious stratagems. It’s the honest, obedient slave the Industrial Revolution was intended to create. It’s content to be my creature, and I adore it. Of course it takes longer to use than a computer, but who cares? Time ceases to matter when you’re in love.
Peter Kreeft is a professor of philosophy at Boston College, and a popular writer and speaker. This article originally appeared in the May 2004 issue of Crisis Magazine.