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.