Digital Impotence

Recently a relative of a friend died and I had wanted to send along a note, not of condolence, but of recognition of the fact of the death. Although a relative, the relationship between friend and relative was not close. Still, I felt an acknowledgement of the loss would be the proper thing to do.  Sitting down to my computer, as now, classical music from Tunein, a favorite site, in the background, I began to write. It soon became obvious that I didn’t know what to say, or how to say it. Over and over again I deleted the text preceding the blinking cursor and started anew. After several abortive starts, I can’t remember how many, but more than five, I gave it up and shoved myself angrily away from the computer.

It was then that it came to me that something was missing. I was dissatisfied with myself, sure, but realizing that did little to take away my resentment of the keyboard and my apparent writer’s block. A few days later, watching a 30s movie on TCM about a budding writer, my frustration of several days previous was remembered as was its cause. It was the usual plot for the time, aspiring writer is good but can’t get published. Aspiring writer and ever hopeful girlfriend want to get married, but can’t until he makes good. I will be giving nothing away if I tell you that following failed attempts to get published and the breaking engagement, suddenly in the last 5 minutes, as was usually the case in movies of this genre, his manuscript is discovered, etc., etc., etc., and everyone lives happily ever after. But it was one scene that caught my attention. The one, always in movies with this plot, of the writer sitting at his typewriter, hitting the keys ever harder in frustration, and slamming the return lever with an exaggerated flourish, before reaching up, grabbing the paper and ripping it from the machine with a satisfying “whirrrr”, wadding it into a ball and tossing it towards an overflowing wastepaper basket. “Aha”, I thought, this is what was missing from my writing impotence of a few days before, the physical act that a typewriter allowed as it permitted you to punch the keys harder and harder as your frustration grew, likewise slamming the return lever hard to the right, hard enough that the typewriter jumped, and then, finally, that anger quenching movement of tearing the offending paper from the machine. Ah, bliss! This was the reason for my dissatisfaction. The plastic keyboard contains nothing, no dinging bell at the end of a line, no “zzzzipppp” as you hit the return key (even that is unnecessary, return is automatic at the end of the line), and missed most of all, no satisfying clack of metal key against paper. Hardly any sound at all, actually.

As an aside, I should tell you that years ago, when our office got its first computer, made by Wang, it was shared by six people. This early model had a feature which allowed you to turn on an application that sounded something like the clack, clack, clack of an old Underwood. I usually turned it off, not seeing the point of such a feature, only to be scolded by one woman who said she couldn’t type on the machine unless the sound effects were on. It was a boring machine, but did give rise to some crude office humor. Shortly after it was delivered, a woman appeared on the scene, went to our supervisor’s door and loudly announced, “Good morning Mr. ___________, I’m here to show you how to use your Wang”. Needless to say, that punch line was repeated on occasion, especially if the day was otherwise slow. “Hey, _________, how’s your Wang today?”

As I thought about the old Underwood and the release to pent-up aggressions it provided, I thought back on other pleasures taken away with the advent of the digital age. My thoughts went immediately to the headlight dimmer button which used to be installed on the car floor, up and to the left of the clutch pedal. While its disappearance is not a direct result of the digital age, its demise did coincide with the coming of that age. There was something satisfying about mashing your foot down on that button to flash (and, one hoped, temporarily blind the offender) with your high beams. Such an act normally was prompted by some idiot approaching you on a narrow, dark road with his high beams on. Normally, a polite tap of the left foot reminded the other driver of his or her indiscretion and the offending headlights were immediately dimmed. If the polite tap failed to bring results, stamping repeatedly on that button while muttering the appropriate stream of profanity, was immensely satisfying. Such a tactic was also useful and stress relieving when directed towards the idiot who just cut you off. <stomp, stomp, stomp “take that you sonaofabitch” stomp stomp, stomp> The button, of course, has been replaced by a lever on the left hand side of the steering wheel. Oh, you can flick that lever repeatedly, but the stomping is gone and, after all, what’s the satisfaction of flicking a lever with your index finger.

Not happy with taking away the dimmer button, now we don’t even have an ignition key. At first I was reminded of my first car, a Nash Suburban, which had the ignition switch located under the clutch pedal; the car could not be started without stepping on the clutch pedal. Of course, none of this was possible until the ignition key (some of you may remember those) was inserted and turned on. More modern cars of the 50s transferred the action of a starter button, either under the clutch, as noted, or on the dash, to the ignition key itself. You remember, insert key and turn it to the right until the car started. Even the lowly key was subject to some abuse, especially on cold mornings when a balky engine decided it didn’t want to start. The balkier the engine, the more abused the key <c’mon, c’mon, start damn it>, until the engine turned over and caught, much to the relief of the key. Now the button is back and I am wondering just how it will perform on the cold mornings that are surely coming.

I could go on, but I leave it to you to add your own frustrations. The younger set might not understand the pleasure of punishing an inanimate object because of selfish frustrations. I suspect other frustrations have been added by those more comfortable in an age of increasing digitization. I will close with just one other observation that seems to have disappeared with the coming of digitization but probably not a result of it, eloquent swearing. For those accustomed to filmdom’s most used (read overused) profanity, “fuck”, you might not realize that your ancestors could on occasion, let loose with a stream of profanity which could go on for an extended period without repeating a word or a phrase. In the hands of a master, it could be termed eloquent. My grandfather was unusually adept and the extent of his anger could be gauged by the length of his tirade before repetition. The longer the stream descriptors, possible and impossible, the angrier he was, prompting bystanders to look for an exit. Propriety prevents me from giving any examples here. You will just have to use your imagination.