Do you remember card catalogs?
Research in them was slow and clunky, but you learned how to do it in elementary or middle school, and then you knew how to do it ever after. I was thinking about card catalogs recently because my university updated its online catalog over the winter break, and when I came back to teach spring classes, I had to learn how to use it all over again. It wasn’t a terrible process — I could, at least, learn to use it well enough to teach students, relatively quickly. But I had just gotten used to the last set of updates, and I’m sure there’s another set coming. Indeed, we seem to be in the midst of a continual set of updates, at this point . . . recently, a page was updated in the middle of the class I was teaching, and my students had to figure out how to get access to a document, trying different URLs in the middle of class. This is the sort of thing we seem to live with now, a world in which we are always trying to figure out how to find or do something, because it’s changed since the last time.
My computer and cell phone are the same way: they are continually updating, and sometimes the updates don’t make a difference, but sometimes I have to figure out how to do something all over again in the new system. One could argue that this is good for us, that we are learning to be nimble, to think on our feet. Except that most of the time these updates are pointless. They do not make the systems any better or easier to use. At this point, if I want to do academic research, I don’t start with my university’s library catalog because the algorithm isn’t very good. I can get better results from JStor or even Google Scholar.
I’m not nostalgic for card catalogs, but I am nostalgic for an earlier version of the university’s online catalog, which worked so well — so much better than the current system! It seems to me that the systems we had in the earlier days of technology were more intuitive, easier to use. They really did help simplify our daily lives. Remember when ATMs were genius? They still are. But somehow or other, so many things have gotten complicated beyond usefulness. I love my iPhone, but I barely ever type on it because the keyboard is not worthy of the name. I still miss the keyboard on my old Blackberry. Now that, you could type on. And speaking of typing, I certainly don’t miss the days of typewriters, but for writing, I still use WordPerfect, which no one else uses anymore. It’s the perfect system for a writer, or at least the type of writer I am. It allows me perfect control over the manuscript, whereas with MS Word, half the time I don’t know what a particular code is doing. I’m not convinced that my students, who use MS Word, do either.
I love technology, but I love technology that makes sense and does its job. And somehow, we’ve pushed so much of our technology past some invisible point of usefulness, where it’s more of a headache to use than not. I barely ever call customer service anymore, because I know that I’ll end up in a briar patch of computerized options. If I need information from my bank, I walk into a bank branch and talk to an actual person. I have a credit card I keep and use specifically because when I call, the voice that answers belongs to a person. It’s such a luxury, nowadays, not having to talk to a computer . . .
Perhaps I’m a modern Luddite. I have nothing against textile mills, but I hate, with cordial passion, the checkout machines at the drug store that always break down when I try to use them, or the reimbursement system all universities seem to use now — it can take longer uploading the information to be reimbursed for the doughnuts at a meeting than you spent in the meeting. Recently, a vendor asked me to use a new system to pay him, and while I wanted to accommodate his preferences, there I was entering my information into yet another new system. I would much rather have written him a check. Remember checks? They’re so easy, and they haven’t changed since I was a child . . .
Here’s what I would say, as a modern Luddite (emphasis on the modern). Some technology helps us. A lot of technology doesn’t. Take what you find useful and use it. What you don’t find useful, avoid as much as possible. It will simply clutter your life, and there’s no reason to upgrade unless you absolutely have to. Choose what serves your interests and passions, reject what doesn’t. Yes, our modern lives will force us into using technology we hate or that wastes time, like when you check into your flight on your home computer, but then at the airport you effectively have to check in again because you have a bag, and then you have to drop off the bag, which is actually a third check-in. But . . . control it as much as you can. Get off the hamster wheel. You are not an hamster.
Take it slow, or as slowly as you want to. I have an iPhone and a laptop. I do not have a smart anything else, except my daughter, who is very smart indeed. I don’t even have a television or microwave . . . But I do have a tea kettle, a sewing machine. I never got an e-reader. I have lots and lots of books. I type my novels, but before that, I write them out by hand. (Yes, really. My antique WordPerfect program is supplemented, and indeed preceded, by an even more antique pen.) I like writing in notebooks, and when it’s not convenient to pay online, I write a check. I still get my tax information on paper, because paper. It feels like something, as opposed to information humming across wires. I like to see things, touch things — even tax forms.
Choose the speed at which you want to live, is what I’m saying. Sometimes we innovate in ways that are not actually useful, and then it’s up to us individually to say, no, not that. That’s a waste of time. After all, if I wanted to learn something complicated and time-consuming, it would not be the university’s online reimbursement system. It would be playing the piano, or knitting lace, or painting in watercolors — something real, solid, slow, and worth my time.
(The painting is Hilda by Carl Larsson.)