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The Shipwreck Rose: Luddites Anonymous

Wed, 01/20/2021 - 17:29

Can we pause for a second to consider the fact that robots telephone us regularly to try to fleece us of our hard-earned cash? Robots. Robot thieves. How did we acclimate to this bizarre 21st-century normal?

Perhaps because the previous occupants of this house were over the age of 80, I pick up at least four times a day to hear one of these robot voices issuing some B.S. warning about a bank or credit card account or virus software I don’t even own. Some of the robot voices are truly creepy, particularly those that sound like the early digital speech of the 1980s — robots with the deadpan mechanical voice, void of emotion, we used to employ when jokingly saying the words “Does. Not. Compute. Does. Not. Compute.”

One of those cousin-of-Hal-from-”2001” mechanical voices pestered us all summer, a menacing frequent caller whose first language clearly was not English and who claimed she was “from the Amazon account center.” She stopped dialing our number a few months ago, but now we are absolutely hounded by the less bone-chilling but nonetheless gently threatening voice of a generic, white-male-American robot — I call him Ken — who tells me over and over, on both cell and landline, that “this is the second notice that the warranty on your vehicle has expired and should be re-activated!” It’s not the second notice, it’s the 222nd notice. Go away, Ken.

These robo-calls really get my goat. I’m obviously not about to be hoodwinked, but plenty of innocents must fall prey, or they wouldn’t keep calling. Imagine what a terrible person you’d have to be to make a career as a criminal mastermind who victimizes vulnerable old folks sitting home alone waiting for the grandkids to ring? I do not understand why stopping robo-fraud is not a law-enforcement priority. The do-not-call lists are no help.

Talk about dystopian days.

Remember Rosie the Robot, from “The Jetsons” cartoons? An anxious-looking humanoid robot who wore an apron, carried a feather duster, and rushed around trying to please the human family by doing housework? A humanoid housemaid I could warm up to — if she were to take out the garbage and scrub the nasty cupboard beneath my kitchen sink — but somehow our societal advance into the future is not unfolding quite as we wished.

It’s swerved pretty severely off the rails, has it not?

My friends and children are already (painfully) aware of my propensity for droning on and on and on about this, but: Isn’t it strange that those of us who are 45 years old or older — Generation X, and the Baby Boomers before us — are the last and only generations in God’s creation to have lived as adults in both worlds, the old world of what was once upon a time just called reality (that is, physical reality, the biological world, the clockwork world, the Earth) and the world of digitally manufactured reality?

How incredible, in the literal sense, it is that we’re alive now, straddling the breach between digital experience and analog experience. And all this at the very same moment that humanity has such a huge decision to make in regard to climate change: Are we going to take action to ensure the survival of life on the planet, in the nick of time, or are we going to XBox-it all the way to the Sixth Extinction?

My eighth-grade class was introduced to computers at the East Hampton Middle School by Mr. Ryan, back at the dawn of the 1980s, and I clearly remember him describing how one day we would all have computers in our homes, and how the computers would contain all the information in the world, every book from every library on every continent. I remember pondering this, and visualizing a boy sitting in a chair in a dark room, just his back, and the chair, and a boxy, off-white-plastic computer of three feet tall and 18 inches wide. I imagined that the boy attending school at home with his computer would never leave that room, but would just sit with it in the dark. It scared me. And so it came to pass.

Mr. Ryan was right about the home computers, but if he knew that they’d throw reality itself into convulsions, he didn’t mention it to us, his eighth-graders. Will Democracy survive the internet? Did anyone predict this? Mass-delusions among the American populace? A third of our countrymen vowing allegiance to conspiracies that require them to accept the existence of vast pedophilia rings in the halls of power, murder pacts by presidential candidates, and intergalactic lizards posing as politicians to control the universe?

I’m a child of the 1970s and 1980s, and my ideas of the future were molded by films. Frequently, an image from “Coma” pops into my mind’s eye when I think of our lives in virtual space. Do you remember “Coma”? It was a 1978 horror movie that would be forgettable if it weren’t for the spooky scene in which a medical student discovers a warehouse filled with human bodies suspended horizontally, floating there with life-support tubes, alive but with their brains gone. That’s what virtual reality is to me.

If, in our position as the last generations to fully experience life with and without the internet, we were given the choice, I’d choose without. I’d choose earthly life, not the thin and feeble life of digital dreaming. My son and daughter, naturally, would choose the hybrid-virtual model. Of course they would. Why would they not? None of us — except perhaps the Amish? the Mennonites? — have the strength of will to reject “total entertainment forever” (to quote an excellent song on this subject by Father John Misty).

This is why I keep secretly hoping for a prolonged blackout, like we had here on Edwards Lane following Hurricane Gloria in 1985, when the winds took down the utility poles and the electricity was down for a full 13 days, and I read at night by oil lamp. The only way we’re going to give the kids a taste of the older, better — deeper, richer, vastly more intense, and much, much more fun — version of being alive is if the lights go out, and the satellites, too.

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