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July 13, 2005 | HARMLESS UNTRUTHS

Little Electronic Boxes

“You mean because a lot of people are standing around glassy-eyed listening to something mumbling in their ear that it’s a good thing?”

— “Gussy” Gusterson in “The Creature from Cleveland Depths” by Fritz Leiber

Lately I’ve been thinking about getting an iPod. I’m shuddering a little as I type those words, and I’ve decided against it for the moment anyway. But I know it is just a matter of time until I have one, and in a lot of ways, I’m not looking forward to it.

I’ve played with iPods now, and I can see a lot of the appeal. I would love to have all my music in one central source; I would delight in the odd juxtapositions of random play; I would spend hours and hours converting all my music in its array of formats into intangible mp3 form. I even kind of dig typing the word “iPod.” And I am surely one of the obvious markets for owning a portable digital music-file player; sometimes people are mildly surprised that I don’t have one. My answer lately has been that I am waiting until iPods merge with cell phones so that I only have to carry one little electronic box around, but the real reasons I don’t have one are (A) that I can’t afford one, and (B) that I am troubled by the iPod phenomenon.

iPod on a magazine
iPod / photo by Andrew Semansco

A few months ago, I read the science-fiction story that I quoted at the top. In this 1962 tale, the Micro Systems corporation invents something called a tickler, which starts out as kind of a glorified electronic appointment book and alarm clock system. As more useful and popular features are added, the tickler swiftly evolves into a kind of electronic life-manager: tracking and assisting at work tasks, whispering subliminal self-improvement messages at night, and eventually regulating people’s doctor-prescribed medications and injecting them directly into their owners from their permanent shoulder-perches. The ticklers communicate with one another psionically and continue to evolve, becoming ever more useful and powerful, until eventually (naturally) they take over their human hosts.

Ok, so I’m not really concerned about computers ever taking over the world (why would they want to?), but one of the themes of the story is that modern technology is creating a new kind of bizarre yet personalized cultural space, distracting us with its infinity of options and erasing our interest in imagination. Leiber was presumably thinking about television here. And when Gussy, the curmudgeonly hero of the story, announces such skepticisms, his friend Fay contends that ticklers are just giving people more and more of what they want, dramatically increasing productivity and happiness. In one exchange that rings true today, Gussy is ready to concede that one good use for the new technology would be that it could increase its user’s leisure time enough to “allow a man to slide into the other world, the world of thoughts and feelings and intuitions, and sort of ooze around in there and accomplish things.”

Fay responds incredulously: “Who’d want to loaf around in an imaginary world and take a chance of missing out on what his tickler’s doing? — I mean, on what his tickler has in store for him — what he’s told his tickler to have in store for him” (emphasis in original).

This is the problem with our hyper-technified-interconnected-cyberworld. The more access you have to it, the more you get sucked in, and the more you get sucked in, the more you find to occupy yourself. As you can tell from this website, I am sucked in more than far enough already. There is always something interesting to read on the internet, and there is always excellent music to listen to online. In fact, I am awed and overwhelmed by the sheer amount of good, free, legal music that you can track down with a little patience.

Getting an iPod would only suck me in a little bit more, maybe. After all, it is just a convenient combination of technologies I already have. But I think it represents a certain critical point on the slippery slope, and that afterwards I won’t be able to go back. And that is what is scariest. After all, I’m not unhappy without an iPod, and I have this feeling that if I’m going to get involved with something that will take up all my time and that I will go into violent withdrawal without, well, cRack and hEroin are a lot cheaper at the beginning.

(P.S. Go check out Michael Kelly’s take on iPods as fractals . Brilliant as always.)

Work cited:

Leiber, Fritz, “The Creature from Cleveland Depths,” reprinted in You’re All Alone . New York: Ace Books, 1972. (Originally from Galaxy Magazine . ©1962.)