by Rebecca L. Hein
American Reporter Correspondent
August 7, 2009
MY BATTLE WITH TECHNOLOGY
CASPER, Wyo. -- To solve an incorrigible problem is like gazing into an overcast sky as the clouds break. Light beams onto your chilly face and in this moment of brilliance you see everything. Warm and comforted, you find strength to continue.
I recently experienced this after a protracted tussle with my nemesis, technology. Its assault has forced me to cope, and I've succeeded so well that in spite of necessary compromises I feel optimistic about life in the 21st Century.
This is a clear gain because just two months ago I was still complaining to my husband that Caroline Ingalls never had to call Rocky Mountain Power or Source Gas. She never had to wait on hold and was therefore not harangued by electronic voices. Bank statements and phone bills didn't clutter her life, and she never had to worry about a computer crash.
I know that pioneer women slaved over the cooking, cleaning and laundry. When Charles Ingalls killed and skinned a deer, his wife cut it up. Few jobs smell worse.
Sick-nursing alone probably consumed a huge percentage of the frontier wife's time, and the care of many children plus the rigors of pregnancy filled her days.
So why am I complaining? Because I've spent my life with the cello in my hands, practicing, performing and teaching. My ear is attuned to acoustic, not electronic, sound, and this ability to create resonant, lyrical tone has so far reduced my tolerance for artificial noises that this problem was already grating on me years before bleeps and digital voices invaded all our lives.
My battle with technology began in 1985 when I bought a Swintec memory typewriter with a one-line LCD and external disk drive. I thought I understood this machine, and so was comfortable with it until a problem surfaced in the transfer of data from typewriter to disk. I'd successfully stored a file, but when I tried to transfer it back into my typewriter's internal memory, an error message informed me that the file was one character too large. I tried everything I could think of, which wasn't much.
After a series of phone calls I finally found myself speaking with a technician, one of the people who designed these machines and knew how they worked. First I described the problem and he told me that if the file was too large for the typewriter's memory, then the disk should never have taken it to begin with. Then he added, "But if the disk accepted the file, it should give it back."
"Sure," I said, "only it won't. I really need to retrieve this document; what do you suggest?"
"I don't know," he replied, "but if it accepted it, it should give it back."
He was unable to escape his paradigm and therefore couldn't help me. At the time I didn't realize that my infuriating sense of being stymied was a harbinger of the annoyances that harass my generation, those of us who didn't grow up with computers and have never really adjusted.
When automated routing systems took over the phone lines, inconveniencing everyone but the vendor, this waste of my time was bad enough. And now the endless barrage of fake human voices makes me want to scream.
Who do the programmers think they're fooling? An artificial greeting is like one of those early synthesizers that made the faux-violin section sound almost real. That metallic edge can never be smoothed. The more skillful the imitation, the greater my ire, and my reaction to computerized voices is the same.
If my intolerance were limited to phony sounds, perhaps by now I'd have accepted life as it is, but computers themselves cause me physical problems. I get headaches and dizzy spells after just 15 minutes of looking at the monitor. With my daily load of business e-mail and word processing, this problem has inflicted so much stress on our household that until recently I've been at my wits' end.
Then one of my friends, who is blind, suggested I get a screen reader: software that reads the content of web pages, Word documents and e-mail out loud through the computer's speaker system. I saw that this was the obvious solution because I could then perform my work with the monitor turned off. But for me this was no simple decision.
Another robotic voice? I thought in despair. Chatting at me for hours every day? I can't take it.
Years of cello practice have taught me that when frustration peaks, the whole mess, whether of rhythm, tone or facility, is on the point of bursting wide open. On the dust of this explosion the solution floats in like a dandelion puff, and although I'd so often experienced this relief in my musical work of the past 30 years, I failed to recognize this familiar signal when the threat of a screen reader loomed over me. I saw no way to alleviate its maddening effect when combined with all the other digital voices I can't escape.
For several weeks I resisted this transition, but then I spent a weekend expanding my website. This required triple or quadruple my normal computer time, and in the expected miserable aftermath I began to accept the unthinkable.
Although I'd been trying for years to figure out how to calm myself through the escalating invasion of computers, I must have exceeded any previous effort because I saw my grand, comprehensive solution just a few days after I decided to get a screen reader.
It was so obvious that I wondered why I hadn't thought of it before. My life is already filled with activities that soothe and settle me, most notably cello playing. The joy of it goes beyond my skill and on into the realm of purely human effort. No electronic device boosts my sound; I must create it with my muscles and nerves alone.
The same is true of reading aloud, a habit my husband and two children and I indulge whenever we can. Recently we finished Bleak House and now we're re-reading it because Dickens so delighted us that we decided to figure out how he did it.
Even better than Dickens is J. S. Bach, especially his piano Prelude in G Major from the Well-Tempered Clavier. I'm not a pianist, but lately this piece has been dancing through my head with such vitality that I've been compelled to try to play it. I sit down at the keyboard and stumble through, savoring the harmonic structure that begins with a few transparent chords and evolves into textures so lush yet austere that this perfection haunts me for the rest of the day.
When my passion for music and language emerged as part of the solution, this was no revelation. The new angle of my vision shed light on cello practice, piano playing and reading aloud as weapons to be deployed against the assault of technology. For every hour I spend listening to the screen reader, waiting on hold or disentangling myself from a vendor's automatic routing system, I compensate myself as lavishly as daily life will allow.
Thus the stresses of our age, instead of driving me crazy, guarantee that I will find time for the activities and people I love. Sanity requires it, but even better, an insight that began as mere prevention has marched forward to victory in full.
Rebecca L. Hein has a master's degree in cello performance from Northwestern University. In her bimonthly newsletter, "Don't Remember This: The Art of Extemporaneous Learning," she explores the connection between creativity and the unconscious mind. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.