On Language: A Primer for Careful, Thoughtful Introspection

If words matter–and you’ll find that I am very quick to contend that they do–then we ought to be careful with the language we speak. For some, this point might seem like something akin to an argument against profanity. I’m not (necessarily) out to destroy those with foul mouths–it isn’t my habit, and it is one that I prefer as strong emphasis rather than filler words, but if done with thought and a certain sort of intention behind it, a chosen “swear word” can pack the necessary punch to communicate precisely what was intended. (See here Paul’s use of the word ‘skubala’) Continue reading On Language: A Primer for Careful, Thoughtful Introspection

A Defense of Traveling Without a Smartphone

Last week, my husband and I spent a few days in Montreal, Canada. It was our first trip up to the Great White North since moving to the Boston area almost exactly one year ago. I had heard that Montreal is primarily French speaking, so I was prepared for a bit of a cultural immersion. What I didn’t prepare for, though, was not being able to use my iPhone as soon as we crossed the border.

About two minutes after passing through border control, my husband and I each received text messages informing us that using data while out of the country would cost about an arm and a leg. This meant no more Google Maps; no more checking for updates on our lodgings in my Airbnb app; no more Instagramming, Tweeting, or checking Facebook. No more constant access to the Internet.

At first, this was nerve-wracking. Neither of us had ever been to Montreal, after all, and neither of us could speak French very well. As I’ve said before, I am an introvert who is afraid of drawing attention to myself (sometimes to a debilitating point), so I don’t like the idea of standing out as a tourist. In hindsight, however, the experience of exploring a new city without constantly referring to a screen was pretty nice. Aside from using my phone to take photos and videos from time to time, I didn’t take it out that much around the city. Of course, we had wifi in the apartment where we were staying, so in the mornings and evenings we looked for fun things to do online, made lists of names and addresses in a notebook, and marked their locations on a paper map given to us by a friendly employee at a tiny rest stop in northern Vermont. (We came to rely on that map a lot during our trip, so friendly Vermont rest stop lady, if you’re reading this for some bizarre reason: thank you.)

Not only did we quickly learn that most people in Montreal can speak English (at least when they want to), it was also a relief to find that the locals were pretty friendly and happy to help two lost-looking American tourists. One afternoon we sat down in a park and unfolded our map, trying to orient ourselves and find the quickest route to a bar where we’d read we could get some good local beer. Two friendly faced, stylishly dressed university students approached us. The young man greeted us in French but quickly realized that we didn’t speak it. He proceeded in English: “Do you need some help?”

“Well,” my husband said, “We’re just trying to figure out where to go next.” The blond-haired female student bent over us, looking at the map through her large hipster glasses.

“Do you want to know exactly where you are?” she asked in her lilting French Canadian accent.

“Sure,” my husband replied. “We’re trying to get to this bar nearby.” He pointed to our marking on the map, where earlier that day he had simply written the word “Beer” on the  intersection closest to the bar.

“Ah, Dieu du Ciel!” the girl said. She knew of it and told us a good way to get there.

The next day we made a wrong turn on our bikes trying to make our way back to the Latin Quarter (where we were staying) from the port in Old Montreal. Again, we stopped and opened the map. Not five minutes later, two young men approached us and offered to help. As we talked, they also gave us tips on some fun things to do that evening. That’s the thing about pulling out a map in public: it’s a universal signal that says, “I’m lost,” and it’s recognizable to speakers of any language.

While it’s definitely great and convenient to be able to pull up Google Maps and know exactly where you are, or to do a quick Yelp search for good restaurants in the area, traveling in a new place without that instant accessibility to information lent itself to a more human experience. We had more interactions with locals than we would have had otherwise; when we got lost or needed a recommendation, we had to rely on the kindness of strangers rather than our smartphones. And, of course, there was the added benefit of not compulsively checking Facebook every five minutes during meals together. Plus, using a paper map and finding our way as we went was kind of fun; to be sure, it was also occasionally frustrating, especially when certain streets seemed impossible to find on the map or had different names for some reason. But after a while, we got a better feel for how the city was laid out and which streets could take us where than I think we would have by simply following turn-by-turn instructions from a GPS.

I’m not making a broad argument against modern technology. Most days, I love having a smartphone. But it does seem that certain technologies can lend themselves to isolation, depending on how we use them. If my husband and I had been able to use our smartphones every time we needed directions or help of any kind, it probably would’ve been a little more convenient, and we probably would’ve saved a little time getting around, but we also wouldn’t have interacted as much with the people around us. And for an introvert like me, I often need an extra push toward interactions with strangers.

When visiting a new place, opening yourself to receiving help from the people there makes for an experience that is more human and more interpersonal. It makes you vulnerable and it’s even a bit humbling, because you can’t feign independence with a technology crutch. Instead, you must accept setbacks and delays as part of the reality of exploring someplace new, and if you need help, you must acknowledge it, reach out to your fellow man (or let them reach out to you, as was often the case for us in Montreal), and see where you end up.

It Is All About Presence

You may have seen a recent commercial that talks about all the wonderful uses of a pencil, as the screen focuses on one while the background changes to thematically coordinate with the narrator’s descriptions. After a few shifts, the background remains still and a hand reaches down to grab the new iPad Air that was hidden behind the very thin pencil, and the commercial explains that Apple hopes you will find just as many uses for their product. The advertiser’s idea is to convince the customer that, as essential as a pencil has been to poems and symphonies and even doing various things in space, so is the iPad Air. The electronic tablet is professed to be the next revolutionary step in writing from the old pencil and paper.

The 21st century has opened with exciting advances in cyber technology that lead us to debate between physical and digital modes of information. If a company keeps all of its files in electronic media, whether hardware or the cloud, they have more space for physical items like office furniture, and can quickly access their information by a few keystrokes. However, should the hardware break down or the ethereal storage get hacked, that information is vulnerable and, even with backup, possibly irretrievable. So, hard copies are usually prudent for the cautious business owner, though even these are subject to physical damage or loss. One cannot afford to fully trust one way or the other, and so must maximize the benefits of both.

The question becomes more pointed if no significant resources are at stake. When it comes to books, we can carry an e-reader that is capable of providing a small library in the same space that one book would normally occupy. Since producing paper gives people concern for the shrinking global tree population, it would seem prudent to just skip the hassle of carrying bound volumes. Even the book lover’s complaint that e-readers ‘just aren’t the same’ is ringing less true year by year, as technology provides page turning, bookmarks, and generally paper-like screens. As online shopping led to Borders going out of business, so the digital format could replace the last few centuries’ tome, like a new Gutenberg press.

Yet even so, there is a strong reluctance for many to make that final jump— dare I say a faith that things like physical books still offer us something that cannot be replaced. What we lose in technology is the presence of that material we interact with, since cyberspace occupies no real space, and whether connecting with people or writing, they are presented to us via electric signals that are translated into text and picture, not as a corpus or body. The physical element is sacrificed for the sake of efficiency, and that’s fine where efficiency is necessary. Technology can give access to those materials when a physical interaction is not possible.

The problem is Americans have the innate assumption that perfect efficiency will make things easier and life better, so we hardly ever stop increasing speed at the expense of those precious bodily experiences. A digital library cannot be strolled, and no e-reader lets the pages flip past your fingers or gives you the smell of ink and old paper. If electronic stimuli can ever provide those experiences, the point will not be that it feels real, but if it is real. The point is we might be tempted to claim that technology is the peak of communication, as if it can do away with all the inefficiencies and unwanted side effects from tangible thought and corporeal contact.  

The heart of it all is that humans are not complicated data processors, but physical and spiritual beings. Whether in business or leisure, it is harmful for a society to consider ease and productivity as their highest goal, as the primary means of achieving the elusive pursuit of happiness. We need those messy, untimely moments where life is best lived, as well as finding methods to get more things done more quickly. We still need to be able to touch people, and to have their words actually inscribed and close, not just quickly projected and quickly removed. There is more to life than getting the most out of a service, or being preeminent at providing one. When the holidays are about looking for the best stuff at the best price, rather than finding the gifts that bring true joy to our loved ones, including spending time with them (if possible), then they won’t be so holly or jolly.

To be fair, companies are aware of this presence factor and often incorporate into their commercials the notion that their products liberate the customer to take care of those moments, unencumbered by inferior, less handy products. The struggle lies not in those who take stock of what people are like and then advertise accordingly; rather, it lies with the individual from whom commercialism ultimately flows. Having an iPad is great, so long as it doesn’t stand in for love of our neighbor. Focusing on the physical beings around us, not the digital or even physical benefits we expect from the gifting season, is to be more human and, we shall find, gives us actual joy. In the same tradition where God came down to be present with mankind on Christmas morn, we should take time to put aside the fleeting intangibles in favor of those presently with us, who make life complicated and material.

Image via Flickr.

Can Microsoft Play with the Tech Giants?

Spoiler alert: I think Microsoft is one of the tech giants.

When characterizing the technology wars of our age, I suspect many of us come up with the right wars. We think PC vs. Mac for home computers, we think Google and Apple for smartphones (though Microsoft is coming up in this area rather nicely), we think Google and…Bing? Well, we think Google for search, at least. Google pits itself against Firefox (and Microsoft is trying so hard with Internet Explorer 10) in the realm of web browsers. Tablets are primarily a war between, again, Apple and Google, though others have tried to break in, some with outright failure (HP Touchpad, Blackberry Playbook) and others with some success, and a lot of hope (Microsoft Surface).

Once upon a time, Microsoft was a seemingly undisputed leader in almost everything related to computer software: everything ran Windows, even mobile operating systems. RIM broke in and stole the mobile field, at least for business-minded-consumers, and Apple has kept Microsoft on their toes in the desktop OS arena. The giant from Redmond is getting smaller year by year, or so it seems. Their latest move, which is to introduce a whole new design for everything they make (from Office to Windows, from Xbox to Windows Phone), at times feels desperate, but it also feels intelligent. There’s something here to win hearts over, and something quite powerful.

Why, then, are they left out of technology war articles?

Take this article, over at The Economist. After describing the technology war as a Game of Thrones-esque battlefield, they have this to say about Microsoft:

And there is an ancient empire to contend with, too: Microsoft, which recently launched its first tablet computer, is trying hard to get back into the game, having been profitably preoccupied with PC software. But it is the battle between the big four that will have the greatest impact in future on the way people find information, consume content and purchase all kinds of stuff, and on who takes their money in return.

The article talks primarily about Google, Apple, Facebook, and Amazon. While the focus is on content management and our intake of information, it still seems odd to include Amazon and Facebook. Don’t get me wrong: I use both of these services, and there are lots of things I love about each. Amazon single-handedly changed the way I shop online, and Facebook helps me keep in touch with people from all over the world. Amazon may have the power to strong-arm something in the future (they’ve got a market for a digital library rivaling Apple, and probably has a stronger movie catalog), but Facebook is a social media website, like Myspace or Google+. Granted, Facebook is doing extremely well; it’s so ubiquitous at this point, it’s shocking to find people who aren’t on it. My Grandma uses Facebook, for instance.

But Facebook is hardly a tech giant, any more than Tumblr or Twitter. Whether you’re posting pictures of your kids, reblogging an endless sea of memes, or microblogging just about anything you want, the web is a wide place with plenty of outlets for your information. Facebook is hardly unique on that front, even if it is the most populated. It does what it does well, and maybe even better than anyone else, but the main complaint with Google+ (as an example) is how empty it is.

So why does Facebook get included in the Great Tech Wars story, and Microsoft barely gets a mention? It’s an odd shift from the days of the Mac vs. PC commercials. Microsoft, in the eyes of many, was stagnating. No one really liked Windows Mobile, even if people are willing to admit that they love the new Windows Phone platform, save for a ‘lack of apps.’ Then there was that whole Vista debacle, which goes to show how much of an impact a poor launch can have on the long-standing value of a platform. Vista was actually a solid operating system, once it got through the first service pack. But, of course, Vista is one of the most hated editions of Windows.

But are Vista and Windows Mobile really enough to damage Microsoft as a contender in the world of tech? Is it now just an ancient empire, vying for years gone by?

In short, yes. Well, sort of.

Microsoft damaged itself, but it wowed the world with Windows 7. The shift from Vista to 7 was grand, in a lot of ways, and it really has paid off. But damage was done, and Apple worked their way in. Suddenly a stylish decision from Microsoft was surprising. Read any review of Windows Phone 7 when it was first released, or even the initial impressions of Windows 8, and you’ll find a tone of surprise: Microsoft did something cool. And this mentality has stuck: the iPhone is a symbol of ‘cool,’ an Android phone is a symbol of ‘not following the sheep who love Apple products,’ and Windows Phones are just ‘surprisingly cool,’ but mean little to many observers.

And so Microsoft has to fight an uphill battle that I’m not really sure they even should have to fight. They’re striving for perceptions, even though reality says they still hold the majority of desktop OSes, particularly in schools and businesses. The trick now is convincing users that they can run with the cool tech of today, with tablets and smartphones and peripherals. They’ve done that with Windows Phone, and most people who have used the platform agree on that front. The risk is on their home desktop, Windows 8. Time will tell if it will land Microsoft in a place of success or having to fight yet another battle.

But know this: the ancient empire is hardly squashed. It’s not even missing, it’s just not lit up quite as bright.

Image via Microsoft.

Microsoft Surface: A Brief Review (of sorts)

Reviews of the new Microsoft’s new Surface tablet suck. There, I said it. Someone had to! Mossberg gives his thoughts on it, David Pogue opines about it, Josh Toplosky reviews it, everybody has something to say about this new piece of technology from Microsoft. They break down this new gadget in every category imaginable: hardware, software, design, build quality, impressions, etc. But these reviews don’t grasp the most important element of using a device, the likeability. Likeability is an intangible that is extremely difficult to quantify or write about. Each reviewer tells you (the reader) whether they like the device or not, but it’s impossible for the reviewer to gauge whether you will like the device. Whether someone likes a device or not is determined by a complex variety of reasons, one that doesn’t just appear if you add up all the factors. Continue reading Microsoft Surface: A Brief Review (of sorts)

I like my iPhone, and Jesus does, too

“In the early Christian icons,” my priest explained. “You can tell the Christians from the non-Christians by the technology they’re using. The non-Christians are reading from old scrolls, but the Christians stand flipping cooly through books in the codex form. The early Christians were right on the cutting edge of technology.” Continue reading I like my iPhone, and Jesus does, too

#FirstWorldProblems

I hate it when I check my food order after I pull out of the drive through, and I have to walk inside to ask them to fix it.

How does that complaint strike you?  Mildly amusing?  Ironic?  Or are you offended at my callousness toward those who are actually suffering?

The Twitter hashtag #FirstWorldProblems is a popular one.  It typically follows a comment like the one I just wrote.  As you can imagine, then, it is used primarily to highlight the irony of such a statement, to point out that it is not in fact a real problem.

A recent ad campaign from the organization Water Is Life uses this Twitter meme to great effect.  Here is the video:

The ad is generating a small bit of controversy.  I think we need to keep a few things in mind before rushing to one conclusion or another.  First, as Time notes, even the Haitians featured in the ad understood the joke, even laughing at some of the tweets.  As I said, it is supposed to be ironic.  Whenever this hashtag is used, the person sending the tweet is acknowledging that their problem is not really a problem, all things considered.  Phone charger won’t reach?  Be grateful you have a cell phone.  They gave you pickles?  Be thankful you can afford fast food whenever you want it.  In essence, this is the sort of moral exhortation that the hashtag is implicitly giving to us.  Water Is Life is merely taking that exhortation and expanding it, and then providing you with an immediate and tangible way to help people.

Second, to push back, we do need to be careful that our amusing irony doesn’t simply become callous and unthinking.  There may be nothing wrong with the meme in itself, but a person who tweets 5 of their first world problems every day should probably find something more constructive to do.  Not unlike people who post pictures of every meal.

There is a time and a place for ironic self-deprecation, but note that Twitter effectively abolishes any notion of “place.”  Our tweets potentially reach anyone with an internet connection.  When you cannot control your audience, you need to take even more care with the words you use.  Moreover, we shouldn’t fall into the trap of letting a hashtag justify anything we feel like saying.  Acknowledging beforehand that we’re about to be petty and shallow does not in fact give us permission to be petty and shallow.

Third, we should also remember that people in the so-called first world do in fact experience genuine suffering.  We don’t want to be callous in either direction.  Cancer, mental illness, unexpected deaths and poverty are all realities in America as much as they are in the third world.  Exhibiting too much high-minded irony towards the problems of first worlders actually betrays one of the major problems of the first world, that we are materialists.  We consume and consume, hoping in vain that the next iPhone will finally make us happy.  Compared to someone who does not have an iPhone, how could we possibly experience real suffering (which is defined, of course, as not having an iPhone).

In the end, this ad is just smart marketing.  It really shouldn’t offend anyone, because if you’ve ever used #FirstWorldProblems in a tweet, this should have been the very point you were trying to make.  Now when you forget your Dr. Dre Beats at home and are forced to suffer the indignity of using the standard earbuds that came with your iPhone 5, you can use this meme to give your followers a chuckle and actually help contribute to a worthy cause at the same time.

Spellcheque

When I made my last laptop upgrade (about a year ago), I switched to a different chat program. I’d been using one that functioned very well for my little netbook, but with more screen real estate, I decided to return to a program I had abandoned years ago, right around the time that my friends started using Facebook chat. It took me a day or two to notice, but something seemed wrong with the new program. And then it hit me.

There was no spell-check. Continue reading Spellcheque

Sensationalism and the iPhone: Where Did Thoughtful Blogging Go?

Incendiary pieces about Apple’s newly announced iPhone (the curiously-named iPhone 5) are a dime a dozen, that is to say, they’re extremely common and of no particular value. A quick internet search will return literally thousands of articles regarding the announcement. These articles vary in their level of incendiary-ness. It’s as if those in the cheer-on-Apple’s-downfall camp got together and decided to have a competition to see who could publish the most badly argued, least convincing, ludicrous articles. Whether you’re for or against the new iPhone 5 it’s clear that articles with titles such as The Disappointing iPhone 5: Is Apple Falling Behind the Competition?  or Apple’s Big iPhone Disappointment swing to the extreme. Over-the-top sensationalism reached a fever pitch in articles such as The iPHONE 5 UNDERMINES western DEMOCRACY: 5 Reasons Why Owning One Will Be the Badge of an Utter Fool.   Continue reading Sensationalism and the iPhone: Where Did Thoughtful Blogging Go?

Mirror Mirror: the iPhone 5 and Introspection

Well, Apple did it again. They’ve announced and detailed a phone that will come out within the next couple of weeks. The pattern is predictable, which is far from a bad thing in the usually-in-flux world of technology, but there is something underwhelming about a lack of surprise. It comes with the next update for its computer-based software, iTunes, and happened to include an update to its little brothers, the iPod Touch and the iPod Nano.

And yet, I found myself underwhelmed. Continue reading Mirror Mirror: the iPhone 5 and Introspection