Monday, September 23, 2013

One Dead Computer. One Hard Life Lesson.

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”  --Arthur C. Clarke


That’s the absolute worst message I’ve ever received as a writer, this blinking missive which appeared on the ominous black screen of my computer last week when I turned it on.  After a working life of a little more than just three months, my sleek, brand new, ultraportable, cutting edge, touch screen notebook died, taking with it, I feared, the book I had worked on all summer, some 30,000 words. And my last ten newspaper columns. And several sermons. And my vacation photos too. 

No, NO, NO, NOOOO!!!!!!

So first I prayed.  Then almost wept.  Turned the computer on and off a bunch of times.  Spoke soothingly, then desperately to it. “Come on...please…pretty please. COME ON!!! WORK!!! PLEASE!!!!!!”  But there was nothing, just one damning sentence: “hard drive not recognized”. Through careful retrieval by other means, I’ve been able to find most of what was lost and yet I’m still confronted with a technology train wreck, this binary betrayal.

The manufacturer (who’ll remain nameless but whose initials, ironically, could stand for “Happy People”) promises to repair or replace the unit with a brand new one.  This hollow reassurance came from oh so polite and oh so unintelligible service reps, speaking to me on the phone from somewhere in the bowels of a call center in the wilds of Asia.  The technician actually tried to talk me through disassembling the unit and jiggling its hard drive (I can’t make this stuff up) but it was for naught. So now I await a pre-addressed Federal Express box, a computer coffin, to send my comatose machine back to Tennessee, where a nameless technician will try to resurrect it or pronounce it, finally, dead on arrival. 

Ah technology.  I’m kind of geeky and very dependent when it comes to my modern machines. Like many folks, I love my gadgets.  Love my laptop, for with it I can study and write anywhere. Love my cell phone for through it I can connect to others in seconds. Love the net for there in cyberspace I can “click” and rent a car or buy a plane ticket or purchase anything, all from the comfort of my easy chair.  Love my DVR for then I control what I watch, when I watch it.  Even love my GPS. I never get lost anymore. 

Yet the crash of my computer reminds me of one basic technology truth, a non-negotiable dogma when it comes to all of our flashy techno baubles. No matter how high tech we humans go, no matter how dependent we are upon our machines, finally these miracles of machination are soulless constructs.  Bunches of wire and silicon chips, held together by metal screws and drips of solder.

We may imagine, even experience machines as magic, yet the reality is that our devices are just tools, implements, no more alive or vital than a lawn mower or a screw driver or a toaster.  What matters is what we as thinking, breathing, living, sentient human beings bring, or do not bring, to all the technology we invite into this life.

So while the act of my writing is aided by a computer, the muse who inspires my words comes from God, from my soul, from my humanity, not the inanimate thing upon which I type.  The friends I claim on Facebook are not really “friends”—not in a true sense. Unless I connect authentically to them beyond a screen, they are computer code, a string of ones and zeroes. A text message connects me instantly to another but I must never forget that there is a real flesh and blood person on the receiving end of that communication.  

Machines do matter.  Machines are amazing in what they can help us do. Machines are radically transforming our human experience of the world. But eventually computers die. Phones seize up. The power goes out and our home entertainment behemoth becomes nothing more than dead weight.

So pass me a pencil and a sheet of paper. It’s time to do some writing. I’ll go back to my technology but will never again assume it is magic.  No. Give me a human touch instead. No hard drive needed.


  1. I lost everything on my laptop a year and a half ago. My graduate thesis. Years of newspaper columns. Pictures. It was a good lesson, actually. I mean, I'd rather it hadn't happened, of course... but a good lesson nonetheless. :) Nice column, John!

  2. Thanks Jennifer: grateful I've mostly retrieved everything. Grateful for a new writing colleague too! Happy fall.