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]
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...” (ReplyDelete
Now you've gone and hurt that poor machine's sentiments. (Or do I mean feelings?)
And re your old institute and new campus and all - no doubt the teachers use a laptop and power point instead of overhead projectors and *gasp* blackboard and chalk? what is the world coming to?
ah, a nice long rant for people-our-age. as space bar says, what IS the world coming to?ReplyDelete
Space Bar: Remember when you showed us those dreadful video prints of Psycho and Citizen Kane? They have these neat little things called DVD players now. Much more effective, I'm told.ReplyDelete
The scary part is that there must only be a few yrs gap between you and me, but luckily, my formative years were spending in Hong Kong. So it was a much smoother transition for re: the ATMs.ReplyDelete
And as for an aversion to sentient machines - I majored in computer science - I can promise you that no machine can ever be sentient - why - because at the end of the day it is running a human made computer program - and that one designed by an engineer. I shall leave the rest to your imagination.
But I also CANNOT STAND talking machines. The urge to piss on them until they short circuit becomes very strong, especially when the Lift says: "4th Floor, with 'Soldier, Soldier' playing in the background'.
An aversion to talking machines doesn't make you a Luddite. My friend had some stupid printer software on her PC which would open it's God-forsaken cursed throat-cancer voice everytime the printer would print.
Machines need to STFU (except for the visually-impaired, but I'm willing to bet they hate most talking machines as well...)
P.S. I was just looking at the above comment, and realising that to the untrained eye, it looks like there are grammatical mistakes and spelling errors all over the place. But that eye would be incorrect. I was writing in Punjlish, not English. And the rules of Punjlish allow one to be free, as in free scotch, free power to farmers, and free in the use of cusswords and typos.ReplyDelete
Lovely rant. Just what a rant should be. For years, I was convinced that if I pressed the wrong key on the keyboard, my CPU would explode!ReplyDelete
Wonderful rant! Same thing kept on happening to me when computers were introduced in our school.I used to be adamant that we don't need such stupid machines and would learn them with time once we got into jobs.ReplyDelete
Of course my teachers used to become mad at my logic and used to think of me as a nutcase. Today when I watch my younger cousins spending most of the time in front of a computer or downloading songs in mobile phones. I feel I was much better off as I spent my free time playing a lot of cricket rather than being a 'tech' couch potato. Of course it is another thing that I never had these gadgets at that time. Anyway your sense of humour remains as unique as it was a year back ,the time i started reading your blog.
J'wock: What do you mean, 'those dreadful video prints of Psycho and Citizen Kane'?! They were well-preserved tapes, I'll have you know. When I showed them to you guys they were already more than a decade old. Don't say, 'it showed', because it would be a problem only if it didn't.ReplyDelete
(wodrd verification) vishns: The Slow and Painful Disintegration of Vishnu.
which institute is this?ReplyDelete
Earlier the generation gap seemed to be a real GAP - of about 12-15 years. But, of late the gaps are much narrower - seems like the generation is changing every 5-6 years. My college days were very different from my brother's whose was much more different from my sister's (who is in college now). Sigh! Bad thing aging is!ReplyDelete
Mr. Phoenix you say that humans can never make sentient machines. So you trust chance and environment over millions of years to make better sentient beings than a sentient being creating another sentient being in a fraction of that time? I would pick active processes any day over passive processes. And in fact some people would even argue about whether it was really chance and environment which were responsible. But I wouldn't commit myself to it.ReplyDelete
This is yet again an exaggeration of situations like 25 year olds calling themselves "old". It might make for a joke but it gets really tiring and the scary part is people are sounding more and more like they are serious. 10 years ago there were cellphones in schools and colleges. Maybe they weren't that common and only the rich folks had them but so what? It's not like people are traveling on flying cars. It's not a radical change at all. Ditto for ATM's. They were few and in between 10 years ago but that they are prevalent today is hardly a bolt from the blue.ReplyDelete
I think all my pent up hate towards machines is currently directed at GPS systems in the car. The voice is usually that of a woman, annoyingly dumb about what's right in front of us. Instead, she/ it 'recalculates' in case we get innovative with driving...Hmm. It is the world takeover by the machines huhReplyDelete
I agree with the generation gap thing. I find that between me and my sister - only to say the age gap's some 2 years! Soon, we'll live lives when every minute could be a monumental gap. Besides the jokes with super wit and sarcasm, its a seriously disturbing issue!ReplyDelete
How did I miss this post- you echo this old fossil's sentiments exactly. I also have a problem with answering machines- they somehow make me feel incredibly foolish, much more than I'd willingly admit to actually being. And talking lifts- Bah!ReplyDelete
I have a feeling that the supermarket and shopping mall doorkeepers are robots too, with the most miserable sounding good-morning/afternoon/evening issuing from their throats.
Machines are there to make our life easier but i certainly agree that nobody likes the talking machines!!!!!ReplyDelete
i do share the common feelings of apprehension you felt with the computer but let me mention that i belong to the new generation.
i believe its just the lack of knowledege on technology and your inability to use them regularly which makes you uncomfortable with gadgets!!!!
it was the case with me. i instantly started liking computers the day i started using it regularly!!! so what actually exists is not generation gap but ur own apprehensions and your own views...........
I remember when they installed an ATM in the ToI building and there was usually a huge queue outside it because people were taking out cash one Rs 100 note at a time!ReplyDelete
cowlick: I remember those days well. Youngsters today *puts on crotchety old man face* just don't value money the same way, I tell you.ReplyDelete