The Weekend Australian - Review - - Lifelines - Greg Sheri­dan

IWAS at a high-pow­ered con­fer­ence in Is­rael re­cently and ev­ery sec­ond per­son around the ta­ble was fid­dling with a tablet of some de­scrip­tion, ei­ther an ipad or some kind of Kin­dle or other e-book reader, but mostly I sus­pect ipads. One or two were play­ing with their Black­Ber­ries but I couldn’t see a sin­gle soul with a con­ven­tional lap­top, which just five sec­onds ago was the last word in so­phis­ti­ca­tion and gen­eral one-up­man­ship along the lines of: ‘‘ I’m so im­por­tant I can’t be out of touch, nor ne­glect my other work, for a sin­gle sec­ond, even while I’m sup­posed to be lis­ten­ing to you speak.’’

The ubiq­uity of these per­sonal giz­mos has now turned all con­fer­ence ex­changes into golf games rather than ten­nis matches. I play my shot, you play yours. You don’t respond to my shot be­cause while I was play­ing it you were read­ing a tweet about Bey­once while pre­tend­ing to be look­ing at a re­port on nu­clear pro­lif­er­a­tion.

Some­times I am al­most sad when tran­sient tech­nolo­gies pass away. Some­thing like this seems to be hap­pen­ing to Pow­erpoint pre­sen­ta­tions. I re­ally love Pow­erpoints. I have never seen one that is re­motely worth pay­ing at­ten­tion to, but they are supremely re­lax­ing. A cer­tain level of De­fence bu­reau­crat is ut­terly ad­dicted to them. This I think is be­cause De­fence bu­reau­crats all long re­ally yearn to have been sol­diers and a sol­dier’s life, in its non-combat el­e­ments, con­tains much of rou­tine and bore­dom and seem­ingly sense­less and repet­i­tive ac­tions.

Noth­ing so closely re­sem­bles this as sit­ting through a Pow­erpoint pre­sen­ta­tion. I love them, though, for ex­actly this rea­son, their in­de­struc­tible core of bore­dom, the not un­pleas­ant en­nui they oc­ca­sion. For me they are a per­fect white noise, a vis­ual Val­ium which is hyp­notic and deeply rest­ful.

I am a no­to­ri­ous techno-idiot. Each piece of ma­chin­ery, new or old, is an in­tel­li­gence test and one I in­fal­li­bly fail. This is not a mat­ter of digitisation. I am like that in re­la­tion to all bits of ma­chin­ery. Early in our mar­ried life my wife used to pray things would break down while I was over­seas. If they broke down while I was at home I was hon­our-bound to have a shot at fix­ing them. This in­vari­ably made them worse and re­sulted in ex­pense when we got them fixed pro­fes­sion­ally. Whereas if they broke down while I was away one of our oblig­ing neigh­bours would al­ways fix them up.

Yet I am com­ing to be­lieve that mod­ern tech­nol­ogy re­ally is de­signed with some­one like me in mind. In the old days not know­ing about ma­chines was a real dis­ad­van­tage. Your car would break down and there you were, wait­ing for road­side as­sis­tance. I solved this dilemma by buy­ing an eight cylin­der, Ley­land P-76, that leg­endary model, which had so much horse­power that even if seven of the cylin­ders were out it would never quite stop run­ning al­to­gether.

Tom Switzer, who used to edit a sec­tion I wrote for on this pa­per and now runs The Spec­ta­tor in Australia, used of­ten to have to deal with my techno-help­less­ness and he con­soled me by say­ing that some of the braini­est peo­ple he knew in his days at the Amer­i­can En­ter­prise In­sti­tute were as tech­no­log­i­cally il­lit­er­ate as me.

I used to think he was just be­ing kind, but now I re­alise how shrewd I have been never to in­vest the slight­est ef­fort in learn­ing any­thing about gad­gets. Be­cause the less I know the more the gad­get de­sign­ers make the tech­nol­ogy easy for me to deal with. The touch-screen tech­nol­ogy of the ipads is now so easy and in­tu­itive that I have found even I can use it with no real in­struc­tion.

I have two reser­va­tions about the tech­nol­ogy, though. It would be la­bo­ri­ous, if not down­right dif­fi­cult, to write an en­tire ar­ti­cle, much less a book, on a touch screen. And re­cently my wife re­turned from over­seas to a sur­pris­ingly large phone bill. Her phone, which she thought in­no­cently asleep in her hand­bag, had in fact been rub­bing it­self up against other ob­jects and au­to­mat­i­cally dialling var­i­ous num­bers in Australia.

A ma­chine that oc­ca­sion­ally does things you don’t want seems a small enough price to pay for that same ma­chine be­ing so clever it will do any­thing you ask of it, with­out you need­ing to mas­ter any geek lan­guage. My only anx­i­ety is that one of the tra­di­tion­ally great as­sets of, once again, cer­tain types of De­fence bu­reau­crats, and cer­tain types of writ­ers — what boffins call ‘‘ learned help­less­ness’’ — may be start­ing to lose some of its pow­er­ful ef­fi­cacy. Of course, you could ar­gue that techno-id­iocy was the flip side of be­ing se­ri­ously in­ter­ested in the things you are re­ally in­ter­ested in, rather than the gad­gets that merely de­liver the data. But I fear that de­bate has be­come ob­so­lete.

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