Saturday, November 15, 2008

Ambivalence About Technology

I had a bit of a crisis last weekend. For several years, I've used a PDA to manage my calendar and such, and it died. No, actually, it became terminally ill and was only half functional. Part of what I like about PDAs is that you can synchronize them with your computer, and so you have a backup of your data. I had synchronized mine recently, but I had also made a lot of changes since then. So, this did threaten to be a major crisis.

The device kind of went haywire. The controls were now behaving unpredictably. But with patience, I learned its new, twisted logic, and managed to extract my calendar data for the next couple of weeks, writing everything down. Then I managed to coax it into synchronizing with my computer one more time.

Now I had to re-think how I wanted to do things. I used to use a paper system. At times, I used Daytimer, which I really liked. Through grad school, I made up my own system and printed sheets out on my computer. Did I now want to go back to a paper system? There are three problems: it is vulnerable too, to loss -- and without backups. It's tedious to keep track of regularly repeating events. And it is bulky to carry around.

I shifted to a PDA when I became department chair and my life made a quantum leap into greater complexity. I liked being able to enter in repeating events easily. And I loved how compact it was. I could easily carry it with me wherever I went! And, I could load important documents on it, such as papers I'm working on.

So, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is a system that works well for me.

But, can I find a more reliable system? I was miffed at how this one died on me! (And it's not the first one that has done that, alas!) But as I did some research online, I came to realize that all of the systems have problems. The ones with the best reliability reviews are really expensive systems that have bells and whistles I don't need while lacking some of the ones I do appreciate. (This is another thing I don't like about how our economy works: it's in a company's best interest to make things that don't last too long! That way, they sell more of them!)

Then I considered smartphone systems, but I often need to look at my calendar while I'm on the phone, so, while the convenience of having PDA and cell phone all together in one unit is attractive, it doesn't seem functional for my purposes. And, again, there is the problem that many of these systems have bells and whistles I don't want yet lack some features I do want. (That's another thing about our economy that irks me. The apparent "variety" is mostly an illusion. When you find a system in a configuration that really works for you, it will die and then you will find that it's obsolete now and features that you like can never be found again because, while they sold and people liked them, they didn't sell in large enough numbers to justify continuing to produce them. Just selling things is not enough. You have to be able to sell them in large numbers! Thus are we forced by the business world to lose our individuality and go with the crowd.)

With all that's out there, I was amazed at how hard it was to find exactly what I wanted. The only one that really suited my purposes was the one I had before.

So, I ordered a new one.

It arrived. I set it up. I synchronized. And, to my horror, I found most (but oddly, not all) of my calendar gone!

This was the night before the TV crew came to my class. I was already worked up about that. So what I did was took a deep breath, turned everything off, and went to bed. "I have to stay focused," I said to myself. "I can't deal with my PDA Crisis until after my big day tomorrow." Anyway, I had my little slips of paper with my schedule scribbled on to keep me going in the meantime.

So, I got up early the next morning, went for my longest run yet (can you tell I was worked up?), and set forth into my Eventful Day.

That evening, I searched online help files. I realized that the computer I was synching to had Vista, and so I shouldn't have used the installation disk that came with my new PDA, but should have downloaded a new version for Vista.

Since things were about as bad as they could get, I decided that was still worth a try. I downloaded the new version, installed it, and synchronized again. Same problem. Still trying to stay calm, I had noticed that I could run the installation again in a "repair" mode. Why not try that? So I tried that.

To my utter and complete surprise, my calendar was restored!

But there was still a problem. Pieces of it still did not show up on my computer. Since the whole point of synchronizing is to have a workable backup on your computer should you lose your PDA, or should it die, this was still unsatisfactory.

The next night, I returned to online help and was able to chat with a technical support person who helped me solve my problem. Now everything is functional again, and I am so relieved!

Technology can be really helpful, but its unreliability can be almost catastrophic sometimes. This experience had me perceive the complexity of my life in a whole new way. It wasn't so much my dependence on technology that was the problem, but my needing fancy technology to help me manage the complexity of my life. What I mean is that any system would have to be frighteningly complex to manage such a life. The real problem is how complex my life is! The vulnerability is really at that level. The temporary lack of a PDA exposed that deeper problem.

I have two exchange students in one of my classes, one from Spain, and the other from Germany. Both have come to talk with me about how different U.S. university life is from their lives back in Europe. They cannot believe how demanding the daily schedule is. They feel under constant pressure, because they have important projects and papers due almost every day. Each said to me, "I am not a machine! Meaningful learning does not happen this way!" They came to me because they thought I might understand, and I do. But it was hard to know what to say to them. That is the reality of what university life is like here. How do we change it? This is not healthy for our students or the faculty.

Yesterday a bad cold overcame me. This morning I wanted to stay in bed all day. But to let go of what I had scheduled today would create even greater problems down the road, I thought. Postponing it would make my busy week next week impossible. So, I got up and forced myself onward. I showed up at meetings, only to find them sparsely attended because nearly everyone else was sick and overwhelmed. Had I known, I would have stayed home in bed too. After my last meeting, I was going to wrap up a few urgent things in my office and take the rest of the day off. But those few things were really many and took all afternoon.

I started off saying that I was busy but didn't feel terribly stressed, and, oddly, that is still true. My mood is quite good, and that carries me through. But it can only carry me so far, and I know that. The way I pushed myself today is not healthy, and I must not let this way of being develop into a habit again, because that's how I got burned out before.

So, in the complexity of a complex life, a lot of great things can happen, but managing that complexity and living up to its demands is hard.

When I do manage it well for periods of time, I now realize that I'm fortunate in being able to. It's not virtue so much as good fortune: good health, stamina, and support that makes it possible. To some extent, we can foster these things, but they are not completely in our control.

So I have the humility now to comprehend that I live in fragile relationship to the complexity of my life. When I see others around me struggle with their own relationships to the complexity of their lives, I have a lot of sympathy.

Is the slowing economy a sign that we've all had enough? We can't go on at this relentless pace? Sometimes I wonder if that's really what this means...


  1. "The real problem is how complex my life is! The vulnerability is really at that level. The temporary lack of a PDA exposed that deeper problem."

    What a great insight!

    Is the slowing economy a sign "we" have had enough? Maybe. Or maybe it too is deeper than that. Someone in my meeting sent out a short piece by Joanna Macy, who said the earth needs the economy to contract by several percent a year for 40 years (vs. in 4 years, which is what happened in the Great Depression).

    Saying so is heresy, of course, in the modern culture of the US, which may be yet another sign that we need to move into the post-Modern era.

  2. Yes, I've been wondering too whether the slowing economy might actually be good for the environment. Is there a kind of economic "growth" that is good for all people and the natural environment as well? If so, can we find our way there?