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Over Easy: Our digital lives, gone to the dogs



For the Valley News
Friday, April 19, 2019

Homecoming birds are invading my yard these days; the overwintering chickadees now share the feeder with grosbeaks, nuthatches and titmouses. (Or is it titmice? Either pluralization of titmouse looks goofy to me.)

I welcome them all, though I am an idiot ornithologist. I have to check online images to identify common bird visitors, and what I learn in an instant mostly doesn’t stick. It is true, as I once wrote in these pages, that when my wife asked me what sort of birds were at the feeder I answered “small ones.”

That I have to repeatedly consult the internet for common bird identifications is an example of the digital blessing and curse of our time. Facts are as readily available as treats in a candy dish — a candy dish that never runs out. The number of recognized cat breeds? Just 44. The tallest point in Rhode Island? Mighty Jerimoth Hill, 812 feet. The president of Turkmenistan? The one and only Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow.

I hold these truths for mere seconds. I can reach into the Google candy bowl any time for a refill, but is insta-grazing bad for memory? I seem to want to know but not to learn. Is Skittles Brain a thing?

I’ve been thinking of such matters of late, inspired by a recent piece in the Valley News by Peter Rousmaniere, of Woodstock, headlined “What has the digital age done for me?” It’s a big topic, sort of like “What has the atmosphere done for me?” The world is changing all around us, so fast and “virtual” that it’s hard to see it.

I think back to my college years, when computer science students schlepped to the giant mainframe with programming cards to make, with great effort, dot matrix pictures of Snoopy. Good grief. It seemed stupid.

Now, I am almost embarrassed to tell young people that I spent my first two years in journalism writing on typewriters. It makes me feel old, though typewriters worked fine without critical updates or software patches. Just a cleaning and a new ribbon now and then. And when you pounded on a typewriter, it was clear who was boss.

Fast forward to digital assistants that respond to our commands, all the while listening in and telling Amazon our secret desires. Smartphones provide data and games around the clock, but staring at screens is said to disrupt sleep and could be making people less interested in smartphone alternatives — such as other people.

Digital maps and GPS make it easy to get around in a far-away city, but when the signal is lost, so are you. You can’t ask for directions at a gas station anymore; they don’t have maps, and they don’t have mechanics who’ve been around the block once or twice.

Increasingly, smart cars are elbowing human drivers aside. One ad touts technology that keeps your vehicle in the middle of the lane and takes over the gas pedal in stop-and-go traffic. That sounds neat, but where does it stop? Pretty soon a car may dial down the volume if sensors decide the driver is losing focus (and risking humiliation) by bellowing “Oh, Mandy” with the windows down. (Maybe, in that instance, intervention is for the best.)

There are fewer and fewer small shops around here, as the online giants trample all before them. I just heard on the radio that U.S. retailers have announced 6,000 store closures already this year. Where will I find a replacement Palm Pilot? Why didn’t I stockpile Jolt cola when it was everywhere?

Online shopping is said to be a factor in the rapid concentration of auto dealerships. Almost all of the ones around here have sold out to chains. I will miss the recently departed Gateway Ford, which was a little old-fashioned (the wood paneling in the sales offices made me think of the original Mustang and the Marlboro Man) but had salespeople we were comfortable with. I am too old to be hustled by someone half my age who wears testosterone-laced cologne.

And what has the digital age done to politics? Words fail. Trolls prevail. Everybody posts. Nobody listens.

Thankfully, some non-digital things are in a mild resurgence. Knitters stand firm against the digital tide. So do ukulele players. Some people fix old cars or refinish wood. People need to make an active effort to keep doing actual things: whittling, whistling, wandering, wondering.

Meanwhile — and I wonder if it isn’t related in some way — people are more attached than ever to their pets. Consider the dog: A recent piece in the paper claimed that studies prove they make humans happier.

And why not? There is nothing digital about them. If we allowed them to be replaced by robot dogs, it would be a terrible mistake. They would use algorithms to decide when to wag their tails or beg for biscuits — from Amazon, naturally. (Free shipping with Prime membership — Woof!)

A dog loves you, for all your flaws. It thinks you are a genius, against all evidence. A robot dog would crunch the numbers to decide. And report back to headquarters.

A real dog just wants to head outside with you and explore this wonderful, incomparable, aroma-filled world. It is your forever pal. If dogs ever start staring at screens instead of us, we’ll be lost, utterly lost.

Dan Mackie lives in West Lebanon. He can be reached at dan.mackie@yahoo.com.