We’re out on our thrice-weekly walk and Elsie talks of tyranny. The tyranny of our modern technology specifically. The tyranny of her wearable step counter to be even more specific.
“I’ve just let it go,” she tells me, in the spirit of one who’s freed a wild animal from captivity. “I refuse to let it dictate the course of my day anymore.”
Elsie had, up to just a week ago, hit her 10,000 steps/day goal for three years straight, to the very day. Through rain, sleet, snow, hail, graupel (a new word to me), bitter cold, oppressive, scorching heat, derechos (another new phenomenon to me), starry nights & even one full lunar eclipse. As if she was strolling through the end of the world, she told me later.
Elsie 10,000 stepped it through her late-husband’s terminal diagnosis and hasty, untimely death.
“Damn!” he exclaimed to her, his voice raspy with disease and treatment. “Too late to die young, too young to die now. Signing off like a country-and-western song cliché.”
“It gave me structure, the steps,” Elsie said, “when structure was breaking down. There’s a timelessness to dying, isn’t there. Timelessness? That the right word?”
She carried on the regimen after Phillip died, stealthily spreading pinches of his ashes as she went, a little bit here, a little bit there. “Over the places we used to go together.” It got her out of bed when all she wanted to do was curl up and fade from existence. There were days when it simply hurt to stand.
“I need my steps was my mantra. Has been my mantra.”
Until a week ago.
“Marking the end of your period of mourning?” I asked.
She took a moment to respond, looking at me as we strode on, in a way I couldn’t quite grasp. Decisively uncertain? Can we manufacture such a feeling? Or is it a main operating feature?
“I hadn’t actually thought about it like that, Barnaby,” she says finally, a half-block on or so. “That’s unsettling if true.”
“Well, just another example of our tech dependence, wouldn’t you say? Grief time over, widow! On to the next level of living! And without me even realizing it!”
I assured her that I had been talking metaphorically, as it were. Trying to bring some form to an emotional state of being that can feel quite formless, the timeless feeling Elsie mentioned earlier, dying, death, grieving. Heavy emptiness. Piece things back together. Create a new chapter. Recreate our story. What we humans do.
“Exactly!” she seized onto the notion. “But I allowed technology to do that for me. Quite insidious, wouldn’t you say?”
I wouldn’t say that. I didn’t say that. Rather than the tech dependence Elsie claimed to be suffering from, I’d consider it more a case of tech blame, a shifting of responsibility. Of course, I didn’t say that to her either. At least not in those words.
While our technology is new to us, tech reliance isn’t. What is fire after all? A technology, surely. The wheel? The mule and the oxen. The combustion engine. And so on.
What is it about modern technology, this computer and information age of ours, that has us so unsettled?
“Well, fire can’t surveil us, can it,” Elsie suggests. “Fire doesn’t knowingly pass along false information, does it. Fires does what fire does. There is no underlying, hidden motive to it, is there.”
But none of that is inherent either in algorithms and computational designs or systems, is it?
“Arson is the misuse of fire,” I respond. “We blame the arsonist not the flames.”
This stops Elsie in her tracks. I pull up my stride. She stares at me. It’s a, I mean, Come on with that look she gives me.
“We’re doing semantics now, Barnaby?”
Semantics is such a broad term of reference. When aren’t we doing semantics? But I acknowledge her point. Comparisons could tend to be overly facile.
“No one forces us to shop online, do they,” I respond, continuing our walk. “We don’t have to use Google maps to find our way from point A to point B. We don’t have to Uber. If we’re concerned about sinister elements in applications, don’t use those applications. There’s nothing new in learning to trust where we get our information from. That came with the most foundational tools of communication, long before the advent of language.”
“All easier said than done,” Elsie counters. “Even for old dogs like us.”
Transition is just a typo from tradition.
By its very nature, transformational technology disrupts. The very definition, I would think. Disruption tends toward the negative initially because progress never comes without some sort of loss, undermining any sense of advance. History teaches that change doesn’t always come for the better. Tried and true is our standing motto. Until it isn’t.
“Convenience comes with a cost,” I suggest, “if not in actual currency than with…” I founder momentarily. “… instability and uncertainty. At least at first. And we’re early stages yet with this, I think. Our mistake is to continue believing the utopians’ early message of w-w-w-dot creating a better world for all, now co-opted by hucksters and charlatans who see only dollar signs and unfettered power for themselves and their willing collaborators.”
Elsie has picked up our pace a bit, deep in her own thoughts or just working to tune me out which is not an uncommon occurrence once I get going. No offense intended. Certainly none taken. I do tend to take up more than my fair share of space.
“Just keep moving,” Elsie says after a moment of silence between us except for the tap, tap, tap of our feet on the sidewalk. It is unusually quiet on this gloomy early-spring day. Even the birds are keeping their peace. “Just don’t let anyone or anything else tell you why or how.”
We keep moving.