Technology: Autobiographical Reflections

Fr. Edlefsen's Sunday Column

My left hand and my right brain are my original stock-in-trade.  Until the mid-80s, memories and impressions were the prime subjects of my handwriting.  I still have a travel log written on a trip to Colorado in 1977.  As a teenager, I’d handwrite long letters to relatives, satirizing high school life.  During college, my papers were handwritten, as were the letters to friends and family during trips.  In 1985, I bought a Sears Scholar portable electric typewriter with pica font and corrector ribbon for a “Writing Short Stories” elective I took during my sophomore year.  I was clearly the most conservative guy in that avant-garde seminar, being uninterested in grotesque subjects, narcotics and eurhythmics.  My machine had type hammers, thin metal fingers that punched out letters onto the page. Wa-pow, wa-pow, wa-pow.  The hammers occasionally bunched up in a tangle, smashing out random diphthongs.  Once when that happened, I had a Calvin and Hobbes moment, thinking it looked “cool,” like ancient runes.  Getting back to business, I plucked apart the type hammers, springing them back into place, and I played around with the corrector ribbon to whiteout my diphthongs.  I had never taken a typing class, but Dad told me to keep the “G” and the “H” between my two index fingers and “you’ll figure it out.”  Before long, I was typing out ridiculous short stories.  Fortunately, they’re all lost along with the secrets of King Solomon’s court.  Still, my preferred writing tool was my left hand.  My first taste of the forthcoming technological age happened in a business class during my senior year.  We made database spreadsheets.  It was dull as dishwater.  When I started grad school at UVA in the fall of ‘87, I had my first word processing lesson on Word Perfect 2.0 – the cutting edge.  


Writing my grad school thesis in the late ‘80s was an experience in accelerated social evolution.  Almost daily, for two years, I pole vaulted from the 19th century to the 21st century.   My thesis was mostly written between the hours of 9 p.m. (which was the 19th century) and 5 a.m. (which was the 21st century) during my second year at UVA (whenever that was).  I’d handwrite the first draft of a few pages, refining the text in the margins with the visual help of arrows and codas (19th century).  Future edits were postie-noted on the wall, lamp, desk and corkboard (20th century). Then, at around 2 a.m., I’d put the manuscript and three 5¼” floppy disks into my backpack – leaving two other floppies with my previous draft in my room (just in case) – and bike down to the computer room (21st century).  I’d type everything into Word Perfect 2.0, print out one hard copy, and make three backups on my other floppies (just in case).  I went to bed at around 5 a.m. (still 21st century) and wake up at around noon (a 20th century layover, as I’d dine in the cafeteria), returning to the library (19th century) to do more book research.  


My next technology upgrade was in the fall of ‘89, after grad school.  I worked as a merchant for Continental Grain Company in Kansas.  The company had a regional, inter-office, primitive email called SYSM.  Merchants in the Kansas City region could share information about what was going on in their local markets, along with a computer screen showing up-to-the-second futures prices in the Chicago, Kansas City, Minneapolis commodities exchanges.  A decade later, when I was at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary, I opened my first personal email account, which I checked once a day, in the evening.


It had an effect on me.  At the day’s end, I was curious about my emails, eager to check them.  Never before had I felt this way on a daily basis.   Moreover, when I tried to type something akin to a letter on email, it was hard to express myself in narratives.  I was trying to put the content of an old medium (handwritten letter) into a new medium (email).  It didn’t work.  In fact, my attempts to reflect, as if I were handwriting a letter, felt tense and forced.  And my eyes hurt, to boot.  My e-writing expressed less emotion, sentiment, reflection and memory, no matter how much I tried to make it so.  I tried to use the new medium as if it were pen and paper.  It wasn’t.  However, it was handy for brief messages, like “See you at 5 p.m.,” or “Can I get a ride?”  I could also ask a professor a question outside of office hours.  Otherwise, emails were prone to more misunderstandings than personal visits or handwritten letters.  I was more inclined to making hasty and unreflective comments.  I’ve come to a conclusion: email cannot convey a serious and extensive narrative.  That medium cannot convey that kind of message.


Handwriting is slower than thinking.  It permits reflection, as thoughts run ahead of words.  Handwriting relaxes.  Emailing creates anxiety because the writing runs ahead of thinking.  Emailing is more likely to express pre-reflective impatience, outpacing the “stream of consciousness.” I noticed that my email correspondence was more often misunderstood.  The reader was less likely to get what I really wanted to say, or what I really felt.  Moreover, I was prone to make more grammatical errors.  It felt colder.   Idioms suddenly sounded ridiculous.  What was missing?  Call it “sentiment” or “feeling” or “empathy.”  Or “sensibility.”  What I really thought and felt got lost in the medium.  Perhaps Marshall McLuhan was right: “The medium is the message… All media work us over completely.”  


Then there’s the desk calendar – for personal and professional organization.  I may have had one in college and work, but I don’t recall.  The fact that I don’t recall is telling.  If I had one, it was like a pet elf.  I rarely consulted it.  It was occasionally handy.  But memory was my main calendar.  Back in the day, if you said, “Let’s have a beer at The Chimes at 3 o’clock on Thursday, next week,” I wouldn’t write it down.  I’d just remember it.  I didn’t rely much on calendars until after ordination, when I started at St. James in 2001.  Parish life demanded it.  I acquired my first laptop that year – second hand, from my sister – until it turned into Swiss cheese in 2003.  I was naïve about virus protection.  I thought I could travel the world, virtually, without inoculations.  After that, I’d purchase one desktop after another and had one problem after another.  A professional computer expert at St. James tried to fix my troubles.  The conclusion: “I don’t know what’s wrong.”  Perhaps my Guardian Angel messes with my computers for fun.  Maybe I’m fated for technological clumsiness.  For six years, I gave up on PCs and got by on an office desktop.  But St. Agnes changed that. 


My Shogun era was over.  My Meiji Restoration had begun.  St. Agnes was my Commodore Matthew Perry.  I bought an Apple Mac Pro.  But I clung to the desk calendar.  However, it couldn’t handle the volume of activity.  Triple-booking wedding preparations one evening was my Waterloo.  I felt like the Rev. Sun Myung Moon.  So I started smoking the Google Calendar.  Then another incident: my lucid memory for map directions was overtaxed by the traffic pace of the New Arlington.  One fine day, on the way to a funeral, I mistakenly landed in the Pentagon parking lot rather than Fort Myer Chapel.  In a panic (Fort Myer is merciless on untimeliness), I asked a well-suited gentleman crossing the parking lot, with tie and tags and all, to help me out.  He gave me crisp directions to Fort Myer.   After that funeral, which almost wasn’t, I made a decision: “I’m getting an iPhone with GPS.”  In April 2016, I purchased an iPhone 6s.  But it didn’t take me long to find out that the GPS doesn’t always get it right.  A few weeks later, I was late for a wake service at Money and King Funeral Home in Vienna because my GPS said “ARRIVED!” as I turned into the Whole Foods parking lot off of Maple Avenue.  Like at the Pentagon, some flesh and blood in the Whole Food’s parking lot told me how to get to M&K, which was a few blocks back on the left.      


Once dependent on my iPhone, a worry came over me:  “What if it fell into an airport toilet?  What would I do?”  My sister dropped her phone into a Port-O-Potty at a Mardi Gras parade in New Orleans.  She opted to let bygones be bygones.  Nonetheless, my iPhone experience was going well, at first.  It inaugurated me into growing library of apps and iTunes. Banking and insurance became disembodied businesses, at the speed of light.  Uber delivered when I didn’t want to drive and park.  But then, like Pearl Harbor, came a fateful moment.  Returning from a funeral in Connecticut, I ordered an Uber while on Reagan Airport’s Wi-Fi.  My credit cards were poached.  A few days later, an ex-FBI agent recommended a VPN (Virtual Private Network) – protection for when using public Wi-Fi.  I got one.  Safe again, so I thought.  Then came Memorial Day 2016.  I returned from an Uber ride to Children’s Hospital in DC, doing a priestly duty.  Then, the phone had a stroke.  It refused the internet’s global nervous system.  I visited the Verizon store where I bought the phone.  The verdict: VPNs kill iPhone 6s’s.  “Well, I’ll be...”  Folklore says iPhone 6s’s have a checkered past, like Corvairs and DC-10s, though facts have vindicated both.  But I was in no mood to “run a diagnostic” at Clarendon’s “brick and mortar” Apple Store.  So I traded it in for an iPhone 7.  I also upgraded from 1GB to 5GB of data.  Rumor has it that burning data is safer than using public Wi-Fi.  No VPN needed.  Live and learn.  


Post Script I: “We haven’t heard from Benjamin Franklin in Paris this year.  We should write him a letter.” (George Washington)

Post Script II: “Although I have much to write you, I do not intend to use paper and ink.  Instead, I hope to visit you and to speak face to face so that our joy may be complete.”  (2 John, v. 12)