by Willem Lange
EAST MONTPELIER – One of the pleasant features of the current isolation caused by the pandemic is the chance to get better acquainted with the mundane features of our everyday lives. After Coco, the alarm clock, rouses us in the dark at six, I’m careful to thank him; and a few minutes later, I thank Bud (for the hot water), Hotshot (for the blast of heat from the bathroom ceiling), Brauser (for the shower), and Lumie (for the light in the shower). After dressing, I bid a fond bon jour to Mlle. Soleil de la Nuit, the night light in the hall, for her fidélité, and bid her dormez bien. Then it’s into the dark kitchen to salute M. Café, fill his tank and bunker, and bid him À bientot. Having thus awakened my mind, said hello to my faithful companions, and exhausted nearly all my French, I slip into the office, turn on the computer, and take my pills.
While the coffee perks, I use the computer to check my mail, read the latest news from the Post and Times, and take a browse through Facebook to see what’s getting people’s attention that morning. As I do, it often occurs to me what a marvel it is – though likely unappreciated by those who’ve grown up with it – to have virtually everything we ever could want to know right in front of us and at our fingertips. As Jimmy Wales, the founder of Wikipedia, reminds us in his occasional appeals for support, “Imagine a world in which every single person on the planet has free access to the sum of all human knowledge.”
I’m not sure that the “every single person on the planet” business is doable, or even desirable; but most of us who’ve done much research on the way to a degree probably recall with distaste the laborious process of pulling out the little card catalog drawers and jotting down the call numbers of the books, articles, or magazines we needed. And many’s the time, facing a deadline, I called the local reference librarian to ask a question about Clarence Birdseye or the Treaty of Ghent.
No more. While recognizing that Wikipedia, for example, is written largely by volunteer experts, we can usually rely upon it for basic facts and information. It does wander a bit on subjects like religion; but once you’ve identified the writer’s particular bias, you just add salt and go for it. The news I read, for all the base calumnies leveled at it by our current President, and all the hounds baying up its tree, is pretty reliable. And I don’t have to endure between five and ten minutes of commercials aimed at frightening senior citizens into saving (read spending more) on medical insurance and mortgages. Joe Namath and Tom Selleck are no longer welcome on the property.
Thinking, as I once did, of the Internet as basically a source of information, I was astonished when a professor once told me how it was a great plagiarism detector: “Just type in a sentence or two that you suspect, and if it’s been recorded before, there it’ll be.” That, for me, expanded into the search for half-remembered song lyrics or poems. Thank you, Professor!
I could never get my father, a deaf clergyman, to try the Internet. Granted, he was over ninety, but he was an extrovert and had lobbied successfully for reconditioned TTYs for the deaf, and then for closed captioning on TV screens. Still, he looked with suspicion at the screen and keyboard. He’d read stories about the risqué material available and was clearly loath to venture into that domain. The devil lurked in the Internet. I argued that the devil was in everything, if you thought about it; he was just more easily accessible on the Internet. No soap. Dad’s computer gathered dust.
Remembering the early days of this weekly column, almost forty years ago, when I composed in longhand, then typed the script and delivered it in person to the newspaper office, I’m delighted by the difference between then and now, and suspect the next forty years will see even more amazing changes. The late John Kemeny, a former president of Dartmouth, once observed that the average undergraduate carried in his or her pocket more computing capacity than the college’s (now defunct) Kiewit Computation Center.
And so it goes. I face this screen, which conceals behind itself capacities that I will never need or can even conceive of. It’s cranky sometimes; so am I. But – especially in this time of isolation – it’s a window to all that is wonderful, amazing, deplorable, and appalling in our world.