Monday, August 01, 2005

Sometimes There's A Remainder

Many of my friends, associates and cohorts found themselves inexplicably drawn to cyberspace sometime in the last decade, tickled virtually pink at being able to patronize to buy a book they could instead have in their paws within 20 minutes or check sports scores and statistics online that ESPN funnels on a per-minute basis across the top or bottom of the telecasts on one of their 31 different networks.

Similarly, in business, the onset of web-friendliness began seeping its way in around two or three years ago; where clients and daily work-buddies once towed the "just fax it to me" route rather than bother with printing papers, envelopes and stamping something in time for the five o'clock mail pickup, they now suggest "just e-mail it to me."

The instantaneous, insidious prevalence of these two phenomena is equally staggering.

In the case of the latter, I don't presume to use "the fax is tied up" as a means to delay or deter clients and cogs in the ever-present wheel of productivity. However, reality -- ie, meeting face-to-face with clients or at least speaking with them on the phone -- has been, largely speaking, replaced by the instantaneous, vapid efficiency of e-mail. Why fax a bunch of sketchy, staticky pages when, thanks to Adobe Acrobat, those same documents can be neatly funneled and bundled into an e-mailable mass of data? Why bother calling someone with an answer to a question when instead the answer, and the data supporting same, can be tucked neatly below a mass of 256-bit-encrypted headers? No reason.

As for the former, just consider that once, the world (the Northeast Corridor of the United States) was once roamed, in part, by milkmen and Encyclopedia salesmen. No longer. Now the world (see previous definition) is roamed by UPS and Fedex delivery people. The occasional Fresh Direct truck notwithstanding, the need for milkmen has gone the way of being able to work with raw chicken without fearing bacterial infection. Printed encyclopedias are a rare antiquity -- the web offers, with little or no ability, an instantly, constantly, omnipresent, everchanging litany of information. Why buy something in print that will be obsolete before the ink on the page is dry? Why would any New Yorker choose not to patronize Fresh Direct, a supermarket delivery service that is all but bulletproof? Some people like to eviscerate, smell and feel their own produce -- fair enough -- but with the compression of daily life, and the increasingly rare existence of "free time," who has the luxury of visiting a cramped market, squeezing and sniffing canteloupes, trying to remember what constitutes "freshness," and then standing in a line -- replete with screaming babies and cashiers that need their nametags to verify their own names -- and then somehow get the fruit of the earth into their living spaces? No one has any time for anything anymore, especially not for that.

The onset of technology in our daily lives -- compact discs (and iPods) over LPs, digital cameras over traditional shoot-and-develop 35mm film-based ones, text messages and e-mails over phone calls -- demonstrate a certain progress, and yet they ostensibly remind us of a minute, barely-perceptible shift toward a less tangible and a less meaningful quality of life.

Sure, I love digital cameras -- who doesn't want the ability to photograph anything and not worry about 'wasting a picture?' Provided you've got enough battery/juice and a large enough memory card therein, your camera can capture your every move, every day, over an entire lifetime (or until a new, cooler camera is released). And the fact that those nimrods at Fotomat won't be handling my personal photos -- and that I don't have to pay for film or the privelege of having said Fotomat employee's paw-prints on my shots -- is a tremendous advantage. But as the ease and the access of something as aesthetically crucial as photography increasingly becomes a disposable part of life rather than a means of artistic ability and expression best reserved to people like Herb Ritts, the art of the thing disappears. Some people have a creative, expressive ability to frame a photograph; others, digicam in hand, just take a picture and have no concept of shutter speed, aperture, or lighting. As long as that little icon-thingy isn't blinking, take the photo and go back to the foaming mochachino latte grande de-loox. It's just a picture.

Another concept which I've found uniquely American, for better or worse, is our need to fill the empty spaces (I should have probably listened to Pink Floyd's The Wall for some background effect on this topic, but it doesn't translate to mp3 so I rarely bother these days). What I mean by this "empty space filler" mentality is that we're increasingly a nation of multi-taskers. That means we will make a business call while en route to a lunch appointment with friends to discuss another topic on a third idea we got while spending time with other friends in a bar in anticipation of yet another big event taking place simultaneously at another time. The chain is linked ever tighter and ever longer, and there's no abatement in sight. I'm not an anti-social person, and I multi-task too; but I find that the minutes seem shorter and the pressure seems greater, so every free minute has to be done doing something else; on the way downtown to file papers with a City agency? Review the schedule (on the Palm) for tomorrow's meeting with a client. Waiting for a bus? Make a call -- you've got 90 seconds until the next one rolls up. I'll listen to a CD via the iPod that I got (and ripped and installed into said iPod) a few weeks ago. Albums I once awaited and purchased on the day of their respective releases barely make it onto my iPod, let alone into my ears, a month after their releases and/or purchases. The plastic is still on some of them because I'm so busy it's just easier downloading them from the nearest server (located either somewhere in the Balkans or in the former Congo or in a section of what used to be known as the Soviet Bloc). We're moving faster, we're juggling more, and we're using more technology than grey matter in our daily travels. There's nothing wrong with it, just like it's an overall boon to our daily lives that cashiers just punch in the amount of money they're handed and the device tells them how much to return in change. Their job is simply to be a conduit between me and the thirty-seven cents I get back after buying a pack of Ultrawhite Mint Chewlies. That cash register just saved me thirty wasted seconds of my day. For that, I ought to forfeit that thirty-seven cents. Odds are the casheir can't quite count it him- or herself anyway, so it's likely that some of that thirty-seven cents is staying in the drawer anyway. Then again, I'm too busy to be bothered to count it, so it's all good.

The advent of the cell-phone in our daily lives is a blessing and a curse; 9/11 exposed that for its glaring truth. We once lauded the wired, "landline" phone as a quasi-necessity; how could our forefathers have existed without the ability to call across the street, across the country or across the world? Now, that question is qualified with a "I will call you from the bank, the car, the market or from the hotel." Boundaries, both of time and space, are irrelevant. The world is shrinking along with each minute we're entitled therein. But as long as each minute falls within our calling plan, no big deal.

To wit: a vacation was once sought out of refuge from the deluge of pressure. "Getting away from it all" now means not sitting at a desk, thanks to cellular service worldwide. I could be on a beach in the most remote part of the world, without a human near me for miles -- but I can still participate in Thursday's sales meeting. There are parts of the world -- much of South America, incidentally -- where cellular service outranks traditional landline phones due to geography and topography. So getting away from it all, essentially, means that unless you're dead, sleeping or in the shower, you're reachable, which in turns means that the only way to get away from it all now is to die. Hmmm. The leash that was once loose and essentially invisible has slowly, quietly and voluntarily began circling tighter and tighter. If you don't want to be found, the excuse "I'm sorry, I was out of the office for a bit" will soon, if not already, be replaced by "I'm sorry, my cellphone died."

I'm not railing against technology; I embrace it in all aspects of my life. Like many, my microwave is more active than my stove. The printed numbers on my cell-phone are wearing down; I haven't listened to Dark Side of the Moon or The Wall in months because they do not translate well, as uninterrupted musical works, to the mp3 format. I haven't used a paper-based datebook in over a decade (and I still manage to keep appointments -- mostly). I've got a collection of LP's with no real sense of how I'll ever be able to play them; they'll likely wind up on E-Bay to be sold as collector's items to someone who will cherish and finger the black (or blue, or red, or white, or marbleized green) vinyl while listening to the same recording on compact disc. I've got more than a dozen friends I've never met in person. I've got over 75 people on buddy lists across three instant-messenger networks; people know me by my screenname and e-mail address. And the children being born this minute in the United States will grow up never knowing what film is for, what an LP is, or what an answering machine is (they'll be confounded by the little box where all the voicemail is stored).

What I have noticed, if it's not readily apparent, is as the world increasingly is broken down into ones and zeros, a little something of the original flavor and the original content is lost. Sometimes there's a remainder. Whether it's listening to a brand-new LP on a capable stereo system vs. a compact disc or reading an anthology of short stories via book vs. an online version thereof, the two are different. Digital cameras will produce wonderful prints, given the right paper and resolution; but nothing will ever surpass a really wonderful, well-composed photograph. And as much as the children of this coming day will enjoy the unblemished, sterling sound emitted from a little aluminum disc, peeling a vinyl LP from its paper sheath and enjoying it uninterrupted -- without getting a fax, an e-mail, a text message or an instant message -- is a lost part of a life long gone.

Pining for the good ol' days is not my goal; but if, in only 20 short years, we've gone from there to here, how much further can we go before we cease to become 90% water and instead become 90% binary?

That's assuming, of course, that we're not already. And even then, I'll still focus on what's left over rather than what's already gone. As my algebra teacher in ninth grade once advised me, "The remainder is as important as what fits in properly the first time around."

I never quite knew what he meant, but I think I'm beginning to understand.

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