MEDIA WATCH

Potholes on the information highway

GEORGE BAIN April 25 1994
MEDIA WATCH

Potholes on the information highway

GEORGE BAIN April 25 1994

Potholes on the information highway

MEDIA WATCH

GEORGE BAIN

P.G. Wodehouse, the creator of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster and other eccentric characters in a string of comic novels, dedicated one of the novels, “To my daughter Leonora without whose never-failing sympathy and encouragement this book would have been finished in half the time.” What brings it to mind is this: I am just finishing a book, on media, an outgrowth of this column, and, although it bears no resemblance to anything Wodehouse ever wrote, the same would make a marvellous dedication, passionately felt, with a few simple amendments, primarily to replace “my daughter Leonora” with “my erratic, perverse and generally unspeakable computer.”

When I joined the information highway, it wasn’t even a country lane. Its principal vehicles were the typewriter, the telephone, the telegraph and the teleprinter, all of which were hand-operated, did not demand an acquaintanceship with incomprehensible manuals and were easy to repair if anything went wrong, which did not often happen.

If the computer is a product of something called progress, why have I spent so much time in the past year packing the thing up in its carrying case—I live more than an hour’s drive from my computer store—to have its miscellaneous ailments attended to? How is it that in all the years before, I hardly ever had to do the same with any of a variety of typewriters?

I learned to use a typewriter at the old, old Toronto Telegram, where all the typewriters looked as if they had been bought at a garage sale. In all the time I was in newspapers, I never found myself with a new typewriter, nor do I remember anyone else having had one, or even having seen one in a newspaper newsroom. The conclusion, then, must be that there never was one, and that all of them came, used, from somewhere else—if not from garage sales, then from Toronto’s pawn shops, or perhaps the Salvation Army.

But, the thing is, they worked. The least

Computers have only sly, hidden ailments— difficult to diagnose or to fix and frequently, I suspect, psychosomatic

tractable manual typewriter I ever had was one in which a letter key—I forget which one, but probably the E because it is the most essential—would stick from time to time in the v-shaped slot that guided the striking head to the paper it was to make its imprint on. All that was needed to get it back on track was to separate the errant key from the couple more that inevitably crashed into it after it immobilized itself, and bend it by hand in the direction away from the side on which it was catching.

When something was wrong with a typewriter, it was either capable of being put right like that, by the operator, or else it was unmistakably broken. Nobody ever found anything to bend on a computer. Computers have only sly, hidden ailments, difficult to diagnose, far less fix, and frequently, I suspect, psychosomatic. Exotic is the only other word I can think of for them. Until my recent experience, if anyone had used the words “corrupted disk” to me, I would have thought they were about to embark on some long, boring moan about their bad back. Now, I have encountered corrupted disks myself, and know they do inflict pain, although the site might be more precisely stated than just the back.

I have had the machine tell me there was not enough memory to print this document and that I must quit “other applications”—I don’t even know what “other applications” are—and to try printing it again. I try not to be unfair, knowing my own memory isn’t what it used to be, but I can’t readily accept that a much younger machine’s shouldn’t be sufficient. Worst of all, I have had the machine make a bong sound right in my face, show a sketch of a lighted bomb on the screen and tell me, “A fatal error has occurred.” The third time it happened I found myself reciting, “Ask not for whom the bell tolls....” The practical meaning of a fatal error, and to hell with the theology, is that if you have written 10 pages and gone back to tidy up something and the bomb comes up at page 3, the remaining seven pages, chiselled out of the pure granite of the imagination, have disappeared forever. I was once appalled to hear Walter Stewart, who is a notoriously prolific journalist and author, say he actually liked the act of writing. I was nearly sick.

Where has all this new technology, now lumped under the heading of the information highway, got us? The MacNeil/Lehrer Newshour on PBS, the best news-current affairs program on television, had a short item recently on a new system of coding that would protect business conversations from being listened-in on. Great. Right back to the time of private phones versus party lines, when the two solutions to getting snoops off the line were (a) to pay a dollar or so more and get a private line, or (b) to yell at the other party, “Get to hell off the line,” which was free and undoubtedly immensely satisfying. Also apropos of the phone, what sort of advance was it that put canned voices in all businesses to tell callers which button to push, or “wait for an operator,” who in another time would have answered in the first place?

The telegraph has gone, superseded for news people and some others by the laptop computer. But when the telegraph was supreme, there was an operator in almost every railway station in the land from which a news story, or any other message, could be sent, day or night. There isn’t now. Newspapers today are computerized, top to toe, but the last I saw—I don’t pretend to be up-to-date on this—deadlines had been made earlier, not later, which deprived their readers of more and later news.

Needless to say, open-minded as ever, I do not denounce progress, as it is called. Certainly not on any such narrow ground as that, in the past year, my computer has demanded a new power source, new software and a reconstituted hard drive (or whatever is done with hard drives), not to mention the more important hours of delay and anguish. However, if any of the hordes of technology nuts out there were to ask me my thoughts on the information highway, I would be happy to tell them what they could do with it. It would not be, benignly, that they pave it with gold.