Saturday, March 19, 2011

Operating on the edge

"Cutting-edge technology often works flawlessly. People are amazed...."

About a month ago, my computer had another meltdown, the third in two years. My husband's business partner, who helps with our computer issues, installed a new mumbojumbo board, or maybe it was a makemecrazy drive. Then he restored programs and data from my backup disks. It would be nice if that were the end of the (non-)story.

But it always takes more than that to get things operating again. Invariably, one or two programs no longer work and I have to upgrade or replace them. My photo database refuses to reconstitute itself without hours of manipulation. And this time, Photoshop has to be replaced. I've researched the less expensive Photoshop Elements, but I can't get the free trial version to run. As a result, I haven't been able to do much with my photos (including making a new header) for weeks now, and that's making me cranky.

As computer problems go, this one hardly counts. But it's a reminder of how these powerful, indispensable, magical gadgets complicate our lives.

A few weeks ago, I came across my ancient electric typewriter in the basement. When I bought it, I thought it was so slick. Little did I know that it was the first step toward dependency, like a gateway drug to the addicting world of instant look-ups, dazzling graphics, easy online shopping, and the crack cocaine of blogging.

It's not that I mind being hooked; I love the ways that computers enrich our lives. What I hate is being dependent on something I don't fully understand, can't control, can't fix on my own.

That, of course, is the frightening thing about life on this planet. Even in the best of times, control is an illusion. Under the spell of that illusion and in the name of progress, we humans have complicated our lives with systems and gadgets that are far too ambitious in their attempts to control and outsmart nature. We genetically modify crops. We divert rivers, drain wetlands, and build in the flood plain. We engineer oil rigs that are supposed to work just fine in deep water, and nuclear power plants sure to withstand local weather events. What could possibly go wrong? Well, other than miscalculations, carelessness, greed, bigger-than-expected natural disasters, and unintended consequences?

As individuals, we can shop at the farmers' market, try to reduce our carbon footprint, even try to talk sense into our policymakers. But there's always that risk, that something will go horribly wrong and there won't be an easy fix. There is more at stake than whether we can use some whiz-bang programs to keep ourselves informed and facilitate creative expression. No wonder we're nervous, or more than a little cranky.

"...At first, everyone worries about risk. Then people get lulled into complacency by success and they forget that they are operating on the edge, experts who study disasters say. Corners get cut, problems ignored. Then boom."  

 --from Technology’s disasters share long trail of hubris, by Seth Borenstein, on 


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