Friday, December 03, 2004

Terminator IV: The Rise of the Cellphones

There was once this science fiction writer named Isaac Asimov who had the odd but lucrative talent of being able to write stories faster than the average person could read them, which meant that even the most devoted fans ended each day further behind in their attempt to make their way, dogged and workmanlike, through his dogged and workmanlike prose. You didn't read Asimov for the prose, of course. You read him for the stories and for the ideas that floated on the surface of the stories, like those chewy block letters in alphabet soup. But he wrote so much so fast that I personally would never claim to know his final fictional word on anything.

So all I am claiming is that in one of his many many robot stories -- which I think more or less came down on the side of the robots, or on the side of humans who thought robots were not a dystopian menace -- that one way in which robotphobic humans could be coaxed beyond their fear was to introduce a variety of very simple robots capable of doing one or two very simple household chores rather than one very complicated robot capable of doing many many household chores and perhaps tin mischief as well.

I don't recall his using this idea of simplicity-in-multiplicity in a sinister way, to suggest that thus the robots would insinuate themselves into our lives and accomplish piecemeal the conquest of an increasingly dependent human race. I hope he did because that is what a working writer should do: Mine the material from both ends of the tunnel until it's all gone.

But if Asimov had written such a cautionary story and if he had thought to imagine the modern cellphone and place it in such a story as phantom menace, the point I'm sure would have been not some scene where the phones explode, blowing our head offs (you've been reading the current news stories about that, I'm sure) but a scene in which the phone just sits there, driving you slowly nuts in a game of electronic three-card monte.

Or so my poor wife was nudged, coaxed and pulled to the very edge of madness by her new cellphone last night. The phone's little brain chip is roomy, like some vast and confusing Gothic mansion, vast simply because the builder had money enough to make it vast and thus filled with many empty rooms that cry out for a reason to be. So the chip in my wife's cellphone is able to accommodate more information than one would reasonably want to have accommodated. And so my wife succumbed to the lure of being able to attach every useful fact -- nay nay; every extant fact -- about those loved, known or once-met at a party into her cellphone. This overloading accomplished, all you had to do was say, "Poot" to the phone -- for the phone has its own little electronic ear and part of the challenge of all this was reducing oral id's to one short syllable -- and every fact, figure, rumor and extrapolated outcome concerning (for example) Vladimir Putin, Prince of All the Russians and Original Bush Soul Brother, would come vomiting back.

This, of course, is not command but the illusion of command. Moreover, back it would come only if ever it were entered. All this entering naturally involved many many keystrokes. There was no interim saving of information. All had to be laboriously entered and then saved with one final punch of a tiny button. But this final touch of a tiny button seemed not to save the information but to, whoops, erase it from memory forever!

Now, for six, count'em/I did, six hours last night my wife worked at this problem and finally through this problem.

(That my wife was capable of working six hours at this problem is why she is a wonderful employee. Oh, she's wicked smart -- lot of us are wicked smart, dog -- but she is also so damned focused and determined. I never worry about being taken to some emergency ward in an ambulance and left to die in the corridor. My wife will tear the world a collective new one before I am left to die in the corridor of some emergency ward. The doctors are going to have to kill me. She won't let them let me die.)

It turned out that to save everything you had to push the "down" button, which heretofore in the process had been utterly ignored and neglected. About 1 a.m. last night all this data was finally entered -- though one might better say interred since I don't expect much of it will ever be resurrected -- and my wife came to bed, just in time to catch the last ten minutes of "The Full Monty," which I had been watching on cable, having nothing better to do.

"It's so funny and touching," I said.

"It's a man's movie," she said. "Its premise is that women would pay to see middle-aged men dance naked."

And what woman having a cellphone -- as fickle, as needy, as marginally useful as any man -- would waste her time on that?


Pastor Kathy said...

In case you hadn't heard already, I like the new name. Pavlov's dog, Darwin's cat, hey, sounds good to me.

If your cautionary tale about Eydie's cell phone is for real, then I am not going to bother to upgrade my phone anytime soon.

I was just reading the latest catalog from Dell (they know I bought that laptop from them in 1999 and they are convinced I am just about ready to buy another one) and they have stuff in there, I don't even know what it is, and they don't describe what it does, as if I should know. Like, what the heck is a Dell Axim, starting at $299, and why would I want one?

As for Asimov, I give you from the world of theology my seminary professor Walter Brueggemann. Legend had it he used to work on his books when stopped at red lights. Run his name on and see how many titles come up. Scary. And that doesn't count the articles he's published. I suppose he serves as a model to all you academic folks who live by the axiom "Publish or perish." Perishing was never a threat for him, that's for sure.

Anonymous said...

Right you are. Isaac would never create a messy brain-exploding contraption because that would require repair with a screwdriver. Better invent a contraption that vanishes. That you can puzzle out the problem and fix it from your armchair. Or better, invent a single contraption from your armchair that can fix all other contraptions from its armchair. Isaac did that. He called it Multi-Vac. Al Gore called it the Internet.
Isaac did claim to have invented calculators, I think. He just neglected to say how they worked.
Thanks to your hypertext (and your hyper text), Columbia U should soon be correcting the lifespan it invented for Isaac. They wrote 1931-2002. It was really 1920 - 1992.