Captain Will Rogers III calls it the most sophisticated ship ever to hit the waters. Everything is push-button. Computers more clever than man control every function. The Aegis Command and Control System puts up an electronic shield of radar operating over a 200-mile radius. It tracks submarines, guides missiles to selected targets, identifies friend or foe, automatically fires on targets that meet predetermined levels of threat, performs miracles wondrous to behold. It is worth some $600 million. This is the USS Vincennes, pride of the American fleet, exemplar of man’s genius to perfect machinery.
There is only one small problem. The genius, the computer, figured an approaching aircraft was descending when it was not and the computer couldn’t tell the difference between a tiny F-14 fighter and the huge bulk of a wide-body civilian plane, and so the Vincennes magically pushed a button and obliterated 290 passengers with missiles launched while the Iranian Airbus was still miles away.
It recalls the outrage, of course, when some Soviet technician, seduced by the genius of a Soviet computer, blasted out of the sky a Korean Air Lines civilian jet and the unknowing passengers therein. All the editorials had weighty thoughts and commiserated about the unfortunate side effects of our modern reliance on faceless machines.
The ponderous editorials do not raise a blink from those of us (former editorial writers) who now scrabble in the field and are prisoners of the genius of mankind, i.e. computers. Let me tell you a story.
There was a day, when I was young and foolish and carefree, where I could roam anywhere in the world, burdened only with a small Hermes portable typewriter enclosed in a metal case. I loved it. I had a relationship with it surpassed only, possibly, by my relationship with my expense account. It was durable—you could drop it, kick it around a bit, and it always performed.
Kick started into action wherever the meandering scribe alighted, it produced. All that was needed was a piece of paper, easily obtained in most of the Earth’s civilized jurisdictions. Next, all that was needed was a telephone. At the other end was a marvel of humankind, a young lady at The Vancouver Sun who could type faster than I could talk. I called her Magic Fingers, and she never missed a comma. We had a link that was made in heaven, mainly because the system worked, and the column appeared, unblemished (i.e. untarnished by the genius
of science), in the paper every day.
The years roll on. The day of the computer in newspapering arrives. The truth of it all hit me one day, on a sweating stop on some sweating campaign plane chasing some forgotten prime minister, when I was wrestling into a phone booth a “portable” computer approximately the size of a oneholer. I expressed the usual mild, eventempered observation to my mate Charlie Lynch—lugging the same embarrassing contraption—that this really didn’t seem an improvement on my trusty Hermes and Magic Fingers.
Lynch, who seldom blinks, did not blink. He has done everything, from playing a piano on the boat that took him across the English Channel to the Normandy invasion, to manning the cash register in a French whorehouse, running a bureau in South America and the United Nations, and becoming Canada’s first celebrity journalist. He had been the general manager of the Southam News service, where we then
worked. In other words, he had been all the way up to management and all the way down.
Charlie looked at me as if I was a small cretin, undernourished, and explained that in his long life in journalism he had learned one thing. It was that any “advancement” in technology, any “improvement” in transmission, was always for the benefit of head office. The grunts in the trenches, out there typing, came secondary.
All true. Today, this computerstained wretch fumbles aboard airplanes packing the genius of mankind in something called a Tandy 200, about the size of a TV dinner—about the same size, when one thinks of it, of the metal, indestructable Hermes. There is one difference. Because humans are thought superfluous, it must be plugged in somewhere, then attached to a phone by erotic means, and buttons must be pushed to transmit the language of Shakespeare to some giant computer at head office.
Likely as not, there is a glitch in the phone conneco tion from the No Tell Motel in Acne, Nebraska. Or the system is “down”—the magic word that has induced more cirrhosis in scribes than city editors. There are no Magic Fingers left in the world. Only a black hole in the void, blinking out “Message aborted” to the scribbler, sobbing quietly, in the plastic motel that lost his reservation because the house computer system was “down” during a thunderstorm—a phenomenon that by happenstance seems to occur especially at deadline time.
We are into an American presidential race. We will eventually be into a prime ministerial race (trust me, it’s next spring). The candidate who had the balls to run on an anticomputer ticket would win, hands down. Trust me.
As Charlie will tell you, my life as Mr. Luddite has not been made easier by computers—nor have those of the unfortunate 290 nonsurvivors of the Iranian Airbus, or the passengers on the KAL 007.
And as for Magic Fingers, somewhere out there in Vancouver now dangling babies, I have just one message. Still love yuh.
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