Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

February 21, 2013

Computer frustrations: A not-so-subtle plot to drive humans crazy?

— — Technology is a wonderful thing, especially for the easily amused. I usually find cell phones and other gadgets more than a bit frustrating. Yes, I know cell phones make communications easier — I can still remember the bad old days when I was frantically trying to find a telephone so I could call the newsroom — but now I frantically try to find a place to pull over so I can answer the phone or make a call. Then there are the times when I’m trying to find a signal or trying to remember how to use a certain application. That’s “app” to the technically savvy.

My primary problem involves just remembering what buttons to push. I’ve read the phone’s manual and I still can’t quite figure out my phone. I understand today’s cell phone has more computing power than the computers the Apollo astronauts took to the moon. Well, there are times when I think you have to be an astronaut in order to use the things.

I know I could have run NASA and played a couple of video games at the same time with my laptop computer, but even it bewilders me sometimes. I’ve stumbled through the new Windows system, but I still have to contend with hiccups. For instance, one time I couldn’t get it to shut down properly. I searched through the laptop’s box, but there was no instruction manual.

Frustrated, I took the laptop to the store where I bought it, and a clerk fixed it by pushing and holding the power button. Suddenly, everything was OK. I asked why there was no instruction manual. She replied that computers rarely come with instruction manuals now. You can get help off the Internet. Fine, but what do you do if you can’t get on the Internet?

My nephews A.J. and Alex could have fixed that computer. They grew up with keyboards, mouse cords, cell phones and all that stuff. In contrast, I didn’t sit down in front of a computer until I went to Marshall University in the mid-1980s. One so-called computer class I took used a dinosaur from the 1970s. The word processor I used at the campus newspaper had a black and white screen, plus there was no Internet access.

Now it’s a constant battle to stay current and keep my temper. The new voice-access systems, those things you talk to, drive me nuts sometimes. There was one instance when I was trying to get the phone number of an engineering firm in Virginia. Instead of a living operator, I got a machine on the phone. I told it the company’s name. It gave the name of a store. I again told it what I wanted. It gave me the name of a bakery. I tried one last time, carefully pronouncing the company’s name. The computer gave me the number of a strip club.

I felt like telling that computer what to do with itself, but I didn’t bother. It probably would have given me a daycare center’s phone number.

Of course, we all have to use computer technology in the newsroom, and we have the same headaches that bless all computer users such as crashes and messages that get lost. However, like it or not, I don’t see how we could survive without any of it. I can’t imagine not having that cell phone on my hip or not having immediate Internet access.

Technology is good for a laugh, too. On Tuesday morning, Editor Samantha Perry was laughing at how her phone kept snubbing Assistant Managing Editor Charles Owens. She could send texts to Lifestyles Editor Jamie Parcell, but her phone ignored Charles.

Then Samantha showed off “Siri,” her iPhone personal assistant. Apparently, you can ask Siri something just by talking to it without using those tiny keyboards designed for fairies. She asked Siri three times to name the current temperature before she understood and displayed it on screen.

Charles suggested asking Siri about the meaning of life.

“What is the meaning of life?” Samantha asked.

The answer flashed on the little screen. “All evidence to date suggest it’s chocolate.”

Charles has another idea — ask about zombies.

“Are zombies a threat?” Samantha inquired.

She got a link to a “Dawn of the Dead” website. I guess that’s an answer.

Yes, computers are good things and I’m not ready to give them up, but I’m not ready to trust them totally, either. I can’t help but think of the homicidal computer HAL 9000 in “2001: A Space Odyssey” and the killer machines in the “Terminator” series. Those machines tried to kill use by unplugging our life support and blasting us with ray guns. Could our cell phones and laptops be trying to kill us by raising our blood pressure and driving us mad? Computers wouldn’t have to launch nuclear missiles to wipe us out. They could inflict even more destruction by shutting off all cell phone service and having our GPS systems guide us into deserts where we’ll get stranded and starve.

Could Samantha’s phone really not understand us, or was it messing with our minds? I wonder. I’ll see what my friends say on Facebook.

Greg Jordan is senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com.

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