Update

If one watches the Star Wars movies in the order in which they were made, one sees the ‘droid R2-D2 gain additional abilities and features in each movie, as scriptwriters thought of more ways to use him in their stories. But if one watches the same movies in the order they are numbered, one sees that R2-D2 loses many abilities from his arsenal between episodes three and four. Many of the things he could do in the prequels were missing from his capabilities when we meet him again in Star Wars: A New Hope. The usual explanation for this change is, of course, a Microsoft update.

My desktop computer had a Microsoft update this week. I was editing my book when a pop-up informed me that an update needed to be installed, asking if I wanted to do the update now or schedule it for later. I scheduled it for 12:15 the next morning, and when I finished my editing for the day I made sure to save the file and close it, hoping that the update would not interfere with the book.

The only obvious change to the desktop computer since the update is that the ribbon across the bottom of the screen is pale blue, whereas before it was a darker color. But, as is always the case with Microsoft updates, I have faced other glitches along the way. Thursday, after the update, I composed nearly half of a three-page paper I would need this weekend. When I returned to the computer on Friday, that composition was missing; the computer had no recollection of any unsaved work. This morning, I had to recreate and then finish Thursday’s work. Fortunately, my outline and research were vivid enough that I was able to create the entire paper on deadline and suffer no consequences. But I then had to restart the computer to help it find the printer; before the restart, the computer sent the file somewhere, but the printer sat idle. During the restart, the printer found and printed the file.

My experiences bring to mind, not only R2-D2 of Star Wars, but also a story told by Hemingway. Ernest Hemingway had several unfinished works in his possession when he died in 1961. One of them, the novel Garden of Eden, was edited and published roughly 25 years later. It was then made into a movie. While looking at other things on the computer this month, I came across a description of the movie and decided to buy it. While I waited for it to arrive, I reread the novel. (Spoiler alert) The main character in the novel is recently married, and his bride is eccentric to the point of mental illness. She delights in the knowledge that he is writing memoirs about their honeymoon, but she resents any other writing on his part that does not include her. During that honeymoon, the character also writes a short story based on a hunting expedition he and his father shared years earlier in Africa. The key event of the novel is that the author’s wife burns the story he has written. At first he despairs, saying that once he writes a story, it has left his mind and cannot be recreated. (And he knows that this story was one of his better works.) But, at the end of the novel, he finds that he can write the story a second time, and the new writing is as good as the original, if not better.

This morning was not the first time I have needed to recreate something I had written. Years ago, when I was working with a much older computer (one of the two computers Noah had with him on the ark), I finished a three-page paper, reached out my hand to turn on the printer, and instead flipped off the power switch for the entire computer set-up. I switched it back on immediately, but the paper was gone, erased, completely forgotten by the computer because of that brief loss of power. I had to type it again from the beginning. Again, I was able to write essentially the same paper in less time; where it was different from the original, it was probably better.

Now it is time for me to return to my current book and see what, if anything, the Microsoft update has done to that file. J.

Updating… please stand by

When people watch the Star Wars movies in the order in which they were made, they see the little robot, R2-D2, gain a new ability or two in each movie. This means, of course, that when the movies are watched in the order that they are supposed to have occurred, R2 has a massive drop in abilities between episode three and episode four.

There is a perfectly natural explanation for that change: Microsoft update.

Of course R2 also spends most of episode seven undergoing another Microsoft update, only becoming usable toward the end of the movie.

Since when do we let our tools tell us when we can use them and when they are unavailable? Imagine the pioneers who built this country being offered a shovel with twenty spectacular aps, but one that might not be usable to dig a hole at the very time those pioneers wanted to dig a hole with their shovel.

Science fiction writers in the 1950s and 1960s described nightmarish worlds in which the machines had seized power and were telling people what to do. Roughly a third of the original Star Trek episodes involved Kirk and his crew battling some supercomputer to free its people (and often themselves as well) from its control. Many classic Doctor Who episodes are built around the same plot. Creative people used to worry intensely about a future world where machines had become the masters and people had become the slaves.

Look around—we live in that world. Our devices correct our spelling and grammar without even asking for permission any more. They decide where and how to update without bothering to ask if we want them updated. What is more frightening, our devices are now communicating with each other to determine how best to meet our wants and needs—without necessarily including us in the conversation about what we want and what we need.

Are people rebelling against the machines? No, we have happily enslaved ourselves to each new device. Rather than being used as tools, they have become the objects of addiction. Our addictions to devices has led in some cases to broken relationships, ruined families, and even injury and death as people operated their devices in traffic, in high and dangerous places, and in the most perilous conditions.

It may be too late to stem the tide. We bring our devices to church services, to movies and concerts and plays, to ball games, and everywhere else we go. We bring them into our bedrooms and even into our beds. A week of vacation from work no longer means a week of vacation from the world-wide web, for we have entangled every aspect of our lives into this technology.

I have no answer to this problem. Perhaps Captain Kirk and the Doctor will need to come and save us from our voluntary slavery to our machines. Without their help, we may be unable to break our addiction to technology, our obsession with new and improved machines, our willingness to change our lives to shape the demands of the tools we have acquired for our convenience.

Rather than fasting from sugar and sweets, we need to learn to fast from our devices. Rather than a weekly day of rest to renew our bodies, minds, and spirits, we need a weekly day of rest to live without the fruits of technology. Or perhaps our machines will drive us to such annoyance with their breakdowns and updates that we will wean ourselves from their power and learn again to think for ourselves.

Let me stream a Star Wars movie or two while I think about this some more. J.