I was withdrawing money at an ATM a couple of days ago when the machine became unsolicitedly chatty. “It’s been a pleasure servicing you,” said the display screen, “Have a nice day and don’t forget to take your cash.” Now, with a little effort I could overlook the inappropriate “servicing”, which made me feel like a bachelor in a lap-dancing club, but the second sentence took things too far. “Don’t forget to take your cash”? Really? Did this machine imagine I had popped into the booth to pay it a courtesy call, or to experience the unique high that comes from randomly pressing buttons? If I had a display screen on my own chest, I would have replied, “OF COURSE I won’t forget to take the cash, you iron-brained moron – the cash is why I’m here. And what do you know about ‘nice days’ anyway? You’re just a stationary pile of nuts and bolts and magnetic chips. You’ll never walk in a garden, smell flowers, hear birds singing, blah blah...” (No, it isn’t relevant that I don’t get to do any of these things myself, spending most of my day in the company of a personal computer.)
This whole business harks back to an ancient fear of machines, combined with the important childhood lesson that one mustn’t talk to strangers. I was terrified of computers when I first encountered them in the late 1980s in school. The first time I (mis)heard the term CPU, I thought the thing would look like C3PO from Star Wars, and while it was a relief to find that it was just a passive rectangular box, my fears weren’t completely allayed. Those were the years of DOS and the large floppies that lived up to their name (not like the smaller, more compact versions you get these days...oh wait, you don’t get any floppies these days), and I dreaded the practical classes, freezing at the act of inserting a floppy into C3PO, never sure which end had to go in – strangely enough I didn’t develop the confidence to do it myself even after watching it being done several times. (A friend usually helped with this and other infernally complicated processes, such as typing things on the keyboard, and I revered him as a tech-wizard because the expression on his face when he sat at the computer wasn’t that of someone watching The Evil Dead alone in a dark room.)
I also come from a generation that vaguely remembers what it was like to stand in a long queue in a squalid, state-operated bank with a cheque in hand each time we wanted some hard cash (which was more often than today, because – pay close attention, little boys and girls, and get out your smelling salts – we didn’t have credit-cards back then either). It was part of our psychological conditioning that withdrawing cash from a bank had to be a tedious, sweaty, hard-won process, nearly as difficult as earning the money in the first place. So it was that when the first automatic teller machine came to our neighborhood, it took us days to believe that such a thing could be. When we stood outside the booth and peered inside, we were like the chimps in 2001: A Space Odyssey, gazing at an alien monolith in fear and wonder. Once we actually found the nerve to enter the booth, it took courage to figure out the right way to insert the card into the slot (the first time we did it wrong and the machine made a series of indignant beeping sounds, we were convinced the world was coming to an end, or at least that the contents of our bank account were about to be chewed up).
Even after I stopped being afraid and learnt to coexist with machines, I retained the idea that one should keep them at arm’s length. But now the things talk to us in our own language and treat us like equals. This is difficult for my central processing unit to absorb.
P.S. Nostalgia and disconcertment have been running themes lately. Earlier this week I had occasion to visit the new campus of the institute where I did a post-graduate communication course almost exactly a decade ago. Peeping in at the ongoing classes, it occurred to me that everyone in the current batch has a cellphone and that these young men and women probably spend a lot of time texting each other during lectures the way people in our batch used to pass around hurriedly-scribbled-on paper chits 10 years ago. It’s one of those things that can make you feel unexpectedly old – a reminder that generation gaps will never cease to exist, even if you were once naïve enough to believe that your own generation has seen it all and can never be surprised or made to feel obsolete.
[More generation-gap whimpering here and here]