By Tom Robotham
It is remarkable how easily and insensibly we fall into a particular route, and make a beaten track for ourselves. ~ Henry David Thoreau.
For years now, I’ve started my days with the same morning routine: After resisting the urge to stay in bed for a little longer, I walk into the kitchen, brew a pot of coffee, then carry my mug into the living room where I settle into my easy chair, stretch my legs out on the ottoman, and open my laptop to Facebook, Scrabble or The Washington Post’s online crossword puzzle.
The other day, however, I awoke to find that I had no Internet connection—and when I opened the list of available networks, I noticed that mine had disappeared.
I sighed in frustration. It wasn’t just the deprivation of my online word games that bothered me—although I’ll admit that this was comparable to waking up and realizing that I’m out of coffee. The summer semester was coming to a close, and I’d been teaching two online classes. I had grading to do. Access to the Internet, for me, isn’t just a recreational fix; it’s essential to my livelihood as a teacher and writer.
Within a few minutes I was on the phone with Cox Communications. The guy in tech support told me my modem signal was strong, so he suspected that it was a problem with my router.
“Unfortunately we can’t trouble-shoot routers,” he said. “Maybe you can take it to Best Buy and have them look at it.”
After finishing a second cup of coffee, I headed off to the electronics store. To my relief, I got the attention of a Geek Squad member almost immediately, but he told me he had no way of testing my router. My best bet, he said, was to buy a new one.
“Cox does periodic updates to their system overnight,” he added. “What probably happened was that they did one last night, and since your router is so old, your modem isn’t talking to it anymore.”
“So age discrimination is prevalent even among electronic devices,” I quipped. He cracked a slight smile, then directed me to the aisle with the routers. I purchased one on sale, and proceeded to drive back to Norfolk, resigned to the fact that I’d probably have to spend the next three or four hours figuring out how to get it working.
I know many people who take on such tasks without a thought, but in my experience the instructions that come with electronics are designed to drive people like me to the brink of insanity. As it turned out, though, the process went fairly smoothly. The pre-set password was unnecessarily complicated—Qx6v42OO1g*, or something like that—and was printed in microscopic type, which was hard to make out even with my drugstore readers. But within 20 minutes or so I was back up and running.
Alas, my relief was short-lived. That night, having put in a good day’s work despite the delay, I turned on my TV and kicked back to stream a couple of episodes of Crime Story, a great but little-remembered drama from the mid-80s.
No go. I’d succeeded in getting my modem to talk with my new router, but now my router, it appeared, was refusing to talk to my Firestick.
My day, in short, ended as it had begun: In frustration triggered by computer-age glitches that left me with the urge to just throw all of it out of my fourth-floor window—my laptop, my TV, and those uncooperative supporting devices—and enjoy the brief satisfaction of watching them smash to pieces on the sidewalk below. Fortunately, after a minute or so, I came to my senses, had a nightcap and went to bed.
THE NEXT DAY I managed to persuade my router to talk to my Firestick again. But as I reflected on this whole episode, I realized that quite often these days, I feel that I don’t belong in the 21st Century. This is sort of feeling isn’t unusual as we reach a certain age. Mark Twain once expressed the same discontent with the 20th century, which dawned when he was just a couple of years older than I am now.
It wasn’t just the episode with my home devices that had irritated me. I’m an adjunct instructor at two colleges, and as the fall semester was approaching I was informed that I had to learn two new software systems. I hadn’t seen anything wrong with the old systems, but somewhere on high the decisions had been made.
I’m still adjusting. Just when I think I have the stuff down pat, I try to do something—grade an assignment, add a tab, or simply log on—and get an error message of some kind. I’m especially irritated by the message, “either your username or password is incorrect.” Really? You can’t tell me which one?!
In such moments I can’t help recalling HAL, the computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey and thinking that I am living out a version of Dave’s nightmare, with various computer programs repeatedly telling me, “I’m sorry, Tom, I can’t let you do that.”
Don’t get me wrong. I recognize that our digital age has brought with it many conveniences. The Internet—when it functions for me—is an incredible time-saver. In the process of writing this essay, I’ve paused half a dozen times to Google one thing or another. Most of time, in my leisure hours, I appreciate it too: the ability to watch Crime Story and a host of other shows and films at the click of a button; the ability to stay in touch with old friends in other cities, via Facebook; the handiness of my smart phone, for all kinds of tasks.
The flip side of this, though, is that these devices also bring with them bursts of aggravation—even when they’re working: the pop-up ads that will redirect you if you accidentally click in the wrong place; the necessity of remembering a dozen usernames, passwords and security questions—or remembering to write them down; the bogus Facebook messages from scammers or legit friends who want you to sign their petitions; the steady stream of toxic political posts, and the general lack of humanity in many social-media exchanges.
To a large degree, given the work that I do, I have no choice but to accept all of this aggravation as part of life in 2019. As noted earlier, I could no more do my work without Internet access, and educational software than a tradesman could function without his box of tools. Even Facebook, as aggravating as it is, has given me many ideas for essays and class lectures. And since I teach media studies, I regard Netflix, Prime and cable as tools of my trade as well as my leisure time.
That said, I’m determined to find a way to renegotiate my relationship with these devices—for within the aforementioned constraints, I realize, I still have some flexibility. There’s that morning routine, for example.
Flipping open the laptop before I’m even fully awake, I’ve come to realize, is both unhealthy and unnecessary. Enjoying that first cup of coffee on my back porch, in the company of the songbirds and the sweet-gum trees that shade my apartment, seems like a far better idea—followed perhaps, by a stint at my piano, playing Bach’s Prelude in C Major, which has always seemed to me to have a bright morning quality to it. The first hour of the morning, after all, can set the tone for the entire day. Better to tackle the aggravations after I’ve been fortified by music and nature.
I’m making no promises to myself. Old habits die hard, as they say—and in this case habits may be too tame a word. Our modern devices are designed to become addictive, and so they are. They’re every bit as addictive as cigarettes and alcohol.
All I can do is to try to begin. Perhaps in time, with diligence, I can turn my morning dose of Bach into an addiction more powerful than anything my laptop has to offer.