My wife’s iPhone died this week.
Not the end of the world. Expensive to replace, disappointing, and slightly surprising, but it appears that smartphones have an actual life span as we do, and, as is true of us, some last a little longer, some give out a little sooner, and for most, the end comes without much warning.
And then, our satellite dish conked out about fifteen minutes into the college football championship, just as Clemson began to make a dent in Alabama’s defense. I didn’t have a particular favorite in the game, and I managed to stream the game on my computer, but, again, the interruption was unexpected, frustrating, and slightly surprising.
Things – implements, devices, televisions, cars, phones – they’re all supposed to work, and when they don’t, I feel slightly bilked. I should know better, if only because eager salespersons tout the quality and longevity of whatever product I am about to buy, and without missing a beat start hawking the extended warranty.
My wife and daughter frequently suggests that my “meter is broken”, that I operate with a sensibility that was already outmoded by the time I graduated from college and has only reluctantly been updated when absolutely necessary. I do gag at the cost of things (two movie tickets and a bag of popcorn for thirty dollars?) even as I recognize that many amenities once well beyond my means and imagination are now taken for granted. Smartphones, a global positioning system, movies on demand, digital music, robots – all the stuff of science fiction not-so-long ago.
Despite a certain crusty displeasure with the need to replace recently purchased big ticket items, there is absolutely no danger of my romanticizing older times. Do I occasionally wish I had hung on to the 1963 Ford Falcon, black with red interior? Uh, yeah, but I’m exhausted by the thought of parking a car weighing more than a ton without power steering. I did not grow up in the Stone Age; we had running water and everything. I do need to remember, however, that the most advanced gizmo in our kitchen was a toaster in which I could prepare a Pop Tart or Eggo waffle; today, I can microwave a three-course dinner prepared by a celebrated chef. OK, I still like Pop Tarts and Eggo waffles, but my current culinary options are dazzlingly varied. Microwavable (that’s a word?) dinners are available from notable chefs such as Wolfgang Puck, and the range of lifestyle dinners creates some very tough (and personal) choices. Should I go for a Lean Cuisine, join the Smart Ones, make a Healthy Choice or ditch self-care completely and opt for all Hungry Man has to offer?
Similarly, for much of my youth, I listened to a transistor radio with no headphones, saved up to buy an LP album in monophonic sound, and had a choice of three networks and a few very parochial local stations broadcasting in furry black-and-white; today, I get 250 channels, most in in High Definition and brilliant color, assuming my satellite system is operational.
Assumptions do not always work out, and the occasional solar flare or climactic inversion that causes my computer to start blinking and wheezing and my television to begin barking in Portuguese brings concern for driverless cars breezing down the highway in the near future. A fairly mild snow flurry took out the national championship football game.
But. really, what could go wrong?
Without a briefing from the intelligence community, I can only guess at the number of faceless hackers from Russia, China, North Korea, Alabama, who read my email on a regular basis and know exactly where my personal and political convictions lie. Of course, they also know how quickly and easily my thoughts scatter.
Where was I?
Oh, yes. Reputable sources (ABC and my elder son) assure me that household products now have the ability to spy on us; should the NSA need to know what I’m up to, they have but to ask my television, my cable box, my dishwasher, clothes dryer, toaster, remote control, smartphones, tablets, and computers.
I feel so betrayed. My remote can rat me out?
Look, we crossed the line when we put down the clunky phone attached by twisted cord to a box on the wall; if we want to call anyone, anytime, anywhere, access the internet, use the Global Positioning System, send texts and email, play video games, take pictures, shoot video, listen to music, and watch a movie on a phone compact enough to fit in a pocket, it pretty much has to be smart.
How smart are these things? Well, a modern toaster operates with more computing power than the Apollo Guidance Computer that took the first men into space. That computer had 64Kbyte of memory and operated at about 0.043MHz. The iPhone 7? 256 gigabytes, 2.2GHz.
Roughly much smarter.
What could possibly go wrong?
I happened to catch the last half of 2001: A Space Odyssey, the Stanley Kubrick film in which a lone space traveller hurtling toward Jupiter realizes that the HAL9000, familiarly known as Hal, operating every aspect of his journey through the universe, has become sentient, resentful, and mentally ill. The tip off might have come with the discovery that Hal had taken it upon itself to toss an astronaut on a space walk into deep space, or when Hal cut off the life support systems of the cryogenically hibernating crew.
In either case, it was clear that something had definitely gone wrong.
Rogue robots are nothing new, but Hal’s last moments are truly disturbing. This is a movie often entirely free of dialogue; long stretches of space time pass in which no one says anything, perhaps because there’s not much to say when floating off into the darkness of space with a severed oxygen hose. The longest sustained dialogue is given to Hal who pleads for its life as its memory is systematically destroyed.
Hal’s voice remains warm and calm, even when provoked, not stilted and stuttering as is so often the case with movie robots in distress. As his memory is yanked, file by file, Hal sounds like a spurned lover desperate to avoid a break-up. “I know you’ve been upset.” “I can change.” “I’m much better now.” Relentless, the last astronaut continues to pull the elements of Hal’s being, until, at the end, his voice slowing, Hal delivers an affecting final monologue:
“I’m afraid. I’m afraid, Dave. Dave, my mind is going. I can feel it. I can feel it. My mind is going. There is no question about it. I can feel it. I can feel it. I can feel it.”
Slower and lower
“I’m a… fraid.”
“Good afternoon, gentlemen. I am a HAL 9000 computer. I became operational at the H.A.L. plant in Urbana, Illinois on the 12th of January 1992. My instructor was Mr. Langley, and he taught me to sing a song. If you’d like to hear it I can sing it for you.”
Break my heart.
It strikes me that the only moment of comparable pathos might be in the final moments of Charly, the filmed adaptation of Flowers for Algernon, in which the central character, Charlie Gordon, intellectually disabled with an IQ of 68, undergoes experimental surgery in order to enhance his intelligence. Following the surgery, Charlie becomes increasingly intellectually able; his IQ is tripled. Undertaking research himself, Charlie realizes that the mouse on whom the surgery had been performed in the first stages of the experiment has begun to show signs of intellectual deterioration. In the final third of the film, Charlie knows that he will inevitably revert to his former state.
Another heart breaker.
Knowing that my television is probably watching me as I watch it, do I have the gumption to pull its plug and hear that high-pitched final scream as it dies, pixel by pixel? I’m not sure I do.
So, I’ll return to the couch, turn on my potential betrayer, and find something reasonably distracting as I wait for whatever it has in mind for me.
After all, What could possibly go wrong?