What Will They Think of Next?

Booking photo of Theodore Kaczynksi
Image via Wikipedia

If it keeps up, man will atrophy all his limbs but the push-button finger.  ~Frank Lloyd Wright

Having grown up in the era of astronauts, Star Trek, the Space Race and Isaac Asimov, I was bewitched by the constant advance of technology. It seemed that each week, a new age engineering miracle would find its way into mainstream society.  The commercial textile, aerospace, defense, food processing, automotive and manufacturing industries were huge beneficiaries of the NASA based research that focused on tackling issues related to space travel – insulation from extreme temperature swings, food preservation, satellites, survival in zero gravity and a host of other natural conundrums that conspired to keep mankind forever confined to Earth.  With the help of a few German scientists who despised the notion of Russian winters, the US procured Nazi rocket technology courtesy of Warnher von Braun and proceeded to landed on the moon – vaulting us into a technological revolution that would ultimately help win the Cold War and enhance our reputation as a world leader in innovation.

Technology has now become a centerpiece to the American way. With the advent of microprocessors and personal computers, artificial intelligence has hastened the arrival of a new cultural and social revolution.  The automotive industry has done its part to merge our love affair with motor vehicles and our fascination with the latest gadgetry.  Each year, new cars roll off assembly lines loaded with a range of seemingly indispensable features that may never actually be used.  Yet, it seems technology is proving to be a two-edged sword as our cars have become increasingly independent while our skills as drivers atrophy.

I was recently stuffing myself at industry luncheon when the table conversation shifted to cars and technology.  I rolled my eyes.  My own “ Space Odyssey” encounter with a 1994 Jaguar XJS left me with Ted Kaczynski contempt for technology and a nagging desire to get a personalized license plate that said “ Hal 9000”. I shivered recalling my misadventure – – being stuck in a Jag frozen in a 30 mph gear called “limp-home” mode, a mystery gear that had been erroneously triggered by a glitch in the electrical system that was sending a false positive engine failure message to the dashboard computer.

What was supposed to be a five-hour race up a barren Interstate 5 from Los Angeles to San Francisco, turned into a ten-hour consultation with six different grumpy, simian-like mechanics attempting to fix my wheezing, English Patient of a car.   On that fateful day, I was told ad nauseum that Jaguars were notorious for electrical problems and were impossibly expensive to diagnose and treat.  “ Damn, things are freaks.  Just like everything else out of Europe. Buy American!” The mechanic slammed the hood and wiped his greasy hands. He shrugged, “Hope you didn’t pay much for it.” I thought about its previous owner and how he must be smiling right now.  I would get even with him.  I knew where he lived.  He was my after all, my father.

Since my enervating summer trip to SF where I was overtaken by a man riding a horse and a 300 lb. jogger, I have chosen vehicles more wisely and have avoided the siren’s call of cars whose front panels look like jet engine cockpits.  Yet, the rest of the world is hungry for the next best thing. In Germany, the Research Center for Artificial Intelligence, with sites in Saarbrücken, Bremen and Berlin has been hard at work leading German automotive efforts in the field of innovative automotive software technology. AI and others, including BMW and Microsoft, are teaming to develop an artificially intelligent car that can one day drive itself. As my table mates were extolling the virtues of the 2011/2012 line of AI autos that can park, steer and alert drivers to a range of hostile road conditions, I kept wondering if all of this Terminator technology was such a good thing.  What would Ray Bradbury or Isaac Asimov say?

I kept thinking about my psychotic Jag with its schitzo electrical system. I suddenly had another Jaguar flashback to a harrowing six week period where the car’s battery would routinely die.  After replacing it three times,  I turned to a mercurial, foreign artisan mechanic who had the intellect and bedside manner of House MD.  I distinctly remember his sardonic tone as he explained that my battery was being drained by a faulty seat belt. He rolled his eyes and screamed at me like a Russian prison guard. “The automatic shoulder strap iz not fully retracting into itz sheath and as a result, it keeps engaging. Do you NOT hear zee clicking sound as it is trying to retract?” I did vaguely remember hearing a slight noise that would always stop when I turned on the ignition. He looked ready to euthanize me. “ Um, do you not figure out that when zee car is engaged, zee seatbelt would move back out and across your lap ? Are you stupid man?  OF COURSE, it is going to stop clicking!” I eventually sold the “Grey Poupon-mobile from hell” a year later but not before I had burned thousands of dollars with Dr. House who abused me every time I approached him with another problem. ” Do we haf’ anozer problem, Mizter Tuwpin?” He would shake his head. With all the money I paid and the abuse I was taking, I should have asked him to at least wear stiletto shoes.

Over the years, I have purposely avoided being seduced by the latest automotive technology.  Not unlike a golfer that refuses to trade in his favorite 2003 driver for the latest hydrocephalic 2011 titanium Black Mamba, I am resolute in not chasing technology down its dark, expensive alleys.  However, I must admit to being amazed at the gadgetry that is now finding its way into modern vehicles.  Today’s upgraded package of whistles and bells can include a range of functions that fall just short of a virtual chauffeur. After purchasing a 2010 vehicle in 2009, I still cannot comprehend 50% of its functionality.  Like my computer and its myriad applications, I just don’t seem to take advantage of technology.

While the Audi’s functionality is much more utilitarian than its Asian and Italian counterparts, there are elements baked into its package that include certain “black swan” applications – fog lights so you don’t hit a family member who might be lying down in the driveway or rear heated seats (anyone that sits in my back seat is under the age of 18 and deserves a cold rear end).  My clever automobile can alert me to low tire pressure, seat belt use, insufficient vehicle liquid levels, and miles to go before I sleep. The vehicle can break down any journey into a mind numbing range of statistics including mpg, average speed, and comparative performance to earlier trips.

My children have figured out almost every accessory in my Audi and have taken control. It took me six months to realize that I was not having hot flashes but that a 15-year-old had programmed the front seats to the highest temperature of 10.  It was 30 degrees outside and I felt like I was sitting on a metal bench in Kuwait in August.  Meanwhile, the satellite radio kept defaulting to an explicit hip-hop station. The GPS constantly mocks me choosing to direct me through the shortest route which bears no relationship to the fastest route.  I am convinced there is another setting – the most dangerous route which directs me to get off at 233nd Street in the Bronx when I am going into Midtown for dinner.  In the span of five blocks I witness two drug busts and am propositioned by three prostitutes. I feel like a tim of tuna sitting in my soft top convertible.  The GPS just laughs at my attempts to find the open parkway by repeatedly saying, ” Turn right, recalculating. Turn right, recalculating.”

My spell was broken as a middle aged motor head extolled the virtues of his AI car.  “They have incorporated a range of additional sensors into the vehicle to avert accidents due to fatigue and reckless tail-gating.  The steering column vibrates when your car nears lane lines unless the turn indicator is illuminated.  The car engages the braking system when it gets too close to another car or obstacle when parallel parking or easing into a blind spot.” Another Motor Trend junkie jumped in. “ AI even promotes effective risk management. Limits are being incorporated by moving van, rental and fleet management companies who have worked with engineers to cap the risk of reckless driving by programming their trucks to not exceed 60mph.” By this time everyone was “ooh-ing” and “aww-ing”. It seemed technology is inching into all of our driver’s seats and in the not too distant future, Miss Daisy won’t need her driver.

Yet, perhaps technology could yanks a few weeds from our logistical gardens so choked with weeds.  Given that I am a parent of three teens and will soon have another destruction derby driver weaving his way along narrow stone-walled roads, I started daydreaming of lowering my 5 digit insurance premiums. Perhaps my costs could reduce with the introduction of artificial intelligence.

I shared with a friend with Ford my idea of a new upgrade package called “Platinum Protect“ for prospective families purchasing a new car with teenaged drivers. The Platinum Protect plan could include:

1) Slow Down Feature – A GPS governed cruise control feature that correlates road, weather and speed limits to incorporate and enforce maximum vehicle speed.  A driver travelling on a rural winter road with a speed limit of  50mph would be unable to operate the car at over 40mph. This satellite fed speed minder could save thousands in speeding tickets and put a huge dent in the joy-riding industry.

2) Gotcha Feature – Made popular in the television show, “Bait Car”, digital cameras can now be installed within a car’s cab as well as on front and rear bumpers to digitally record any activities that might give rise to an accident or incident.  The digital images are housed in the Automotive Administrator Data Warehouse which can be accessed remotely via the web.  Parents and law enforcement officials can use visual data which can confirm or refute testimony related to any event. Additional applications include email notification when vehicles leave approved areas of operation, air bag deployment and sudden losses in tire pressure.

As is always the case when my medication starts to wear off, I allow my mind to wander into weird places.  I can see a science fiction future where machines run our lives, I am bald with a USB link in my head and my name is Neo. Perhaps I may be so cocooned in my virtual reality that I only require a slot in my front door for the pizza guy to slip in my nightly deep dish pizza.  I will never have to leave the house – – that is until the guy with the crane comes to lift my morbidly obese body out so I can try-out for “The Biggest Loser”.

As I pen this futuristic manifesto, my car has arrived to take me to the airport.  How did I segue so fast from automotive technology to becoming a massively overweight shut-in. What is wrong with me?

The car honks its horn.  From this angle, I could swear there is no one in the driver’s seat


And Along Came Twitter

The Internet is the most important single development in the history of human communication since the invention of call waiting. – Dave Barry

My compulsive personality is a double-edged hatchet that is impossible to conceal.  My ever-present caprice always seems to catch the bright glare of fads and new crazes. Fortunately, middle age, lack of stamina and a shrinking attention span have hobbled my propensity to chase popular culture like a dog behind a mail truck. I have left the pressure of keeping pace with social phenomena to the young and un-medicated.

Every now and then, a highly viral fad infects my judgment and I become a slave to a new master. In the last few years, the corrupting siren has been technology with her buxom applications and seductive promises of increased productivity, diversion and global access.  I am hardly a techie but I am a fast follower with a highly addictive brain that becomes almost bi-polar with a new toy.  To my spouse’s chagrin, I will disappear like an addict, staying up until all hours gorging on my fascination du jour until I literally become physically ill with its consumption.

It is bad enough when she is forced to physically disconnect the computer from our children who lack the maturity to know their boundaries.  It is quite another thing to lose your partner to the same malady. In her mind, technology has turned our home into a veritable den of iniquity with video games serving as gateway drugs to more potent preoccupations such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, instant messaging and blogging.  The computer, she has decided, is one massive crack pipe.

I started with Web surfing and moved quickly to Amazon and EBay.  These Internet applications are the cigarettes and malt liquor of cyber-life.  They are not very good for you but it would take years of daily abuse before these portals could bring you to your knees. At my most abusive point of EBay use I was a two purchase a day user.  It began with innocent acquisitions like baseball cards and nostalgic talismans from my childhood but moved on to useless flotsam like maritime clocks, antique jars filled with air from the 1870s and a Halloween mask of Bart Simpson.  I hit bottom when I mistakenly bid on an item that I had posted for sale two months earlier.

My passion for military history took me off the Internet and on to PC gaming.  I became a WWII armored division tank commander in Panzer General and a combat avatar in Battlefield 1942 and Call of Duty (COD).  I graduated from the PC battles to Xbox 360 sports games and literally spent one winter disabled in my leather chair playing Madden Football until my fingers would cramp from the incessant tapping of the X, Y and Z keys.

Along came Halo and COD 4.  They were higher end, designer narcotics combining historical gaming and the Internet.  They are the opiates of video games.  COD Modern Warfare has actually infiltrated our town at every level. I have it on good authority that a certain local celebrity routinely roams the fractured buildings and broken roads of Mogadishu searching for insurgents, doing his best to help make the world a better place.  I am pleased he is out there, helping my son and others get out of tough firefights with all our virtual limbs in tact. Yet, on the anniversary of my being killed for the 1,000th time on a virtual battlefield, I drifted back to the Internet – aimlessly following blogs, EBay auctions and The Onion. My fascination shifted to social networking.

As I approached my 30-year high school reunion last summer, I was urged to join Facebook (FB). I joined, posting the best, non-air brushed photo I had of myself in an attempt to torment any girl that ever said “no” to me to go on a date.  I dove headlong into serial posting and irreverent commentary.  Each day I would dredge up some old shoe from the muddied gray waters of the Class of ‘79.

FB gave me a chance to reconnoiter ahead of the reunion and to reconnect faces and names, safely determining who had completely lost their marbles and who had stayed reasonably normal. Life had thrown a few high hard ones to some folks and FB became their confessional and catharsis.  I avoided anyone who made entries to FB between 1am and 6am.  Social networking is like automobile driving.  The police allege that as many as 70% of the drivers on the road after 1am are under the influence of a mind altering substance. My reconnaissance proved invaluable at the California reunion as I successfully dodged someone on parole, two ex-girlfriends in the middle of strained marriages and one shady character interested in raising money for a hedge fund (hold that thought, Jim, I am just going to get a diet coke – – back in Connecticut)

My spouse sees the Facebook messages flying across our screen and is bemused. More private than me, she views FB as the equivalent of running my underwear up some narcissistic flagpole every day and waiting to see who notices. The web is like the atom – a scary unharnessed power that could easily become a WMD if placed in the wrong hands.  It is a neighborhood prowled by out-of-control teens, pedophiles and lonely hearts. Social networking is something one might find in hell — a veritable 24/7 virtual den of paparazzi where exhibitionists, garrulous wall flowers and curious voyeurs can safely post and be posted.  I pooh-poohed her conservative concerns and regularly checked my postings and blog site for comments from old friends and faceless strangers.

I was surprised one day to get a FB invite from the actress Elizabeth Shue.  There was a part of my brain that wanted to embrace Ms. Shue’s invitation to be ” friends” as validation for my rapid virtual social climbing. I had my own blog. I was a regular on FB. I had affiliated with other groups such as Linked In, Propeller and EBlog. It was apropos that a celebrity would want to network with me.  Yet social networking, like nostalgia, is a deceptive liar and you soon feel with so many friends, contacts and followers that you are ready to start your own religious denomination. You start looking for cheap land in Texas. Perhaps Elizabeth Shue would be my spokesperson.

I then got another invitation from a 28-year-old girl in Richmond whom I had never met. Her photograph was, how shall I say, a tad risqué. My immediate reaction was that she must be the daughter of a friend, and as a parent, I wanted to ask him why his daughter was sending invitations to come visit her on Tart Island. I surveyed her “friends” looking for a familiar face and it became very clear that she was only interested in meeting men – men between 40 and 80. The pathetic roster of friends was a dubious yearbook of every delusional, mid-life crisis male between Santa Barbara to Stamford. I was expecting to see Tiger Woods.  There was not a single woman.  The invitation cooed, “Hi handsome. I wanted to connect with you and be friends.”

As I scrolled the men who had consented to befriend this flattering FB figurine, I saw a friend of mine from California.  I immediately pinged him and asked him what he was doing consorting with what was most likely a Russian prostitute born when we were in our junior year in high school. He pinged me back almost immediately and sheepishly confessed, “She seemed vaguely familiar.” Yes, men are pigs.

And along came Twitter. Twitter allows you to post in 140 letters or less a daily message to those who choose to follow your “ tweets”. I cannot even use the restroom in less than 140 letters.  Twitter is all about brevity and sound bites.  Perhaps Twitter will cure my verbal incontinence. However, most tweets are inane mental droppings from celebrities and narcissists.  Rapper Ray J wants to know: ”what’s love got to do with it?” Um, ok. What does intellect got to do with it either? Miley Cyrus: “Party in the USA -I need expresso.” Good for you, Miley.  You almost spelled espresso correctly.

Social networking has created a new fifth dimension to interact and merchandise anything – a product, an idea or one’s self.  However, it is a slate gray 24-hour landscape where interaction is mistaken for intimacy.  As this sterile, achromatic vegetation spreads across our lives, perhaps it is time to turn off the computer, take a walk, say hello to Charlie and Karen next door, write a letter on my stationary and actually mail it.  Perhaps I will go meet a real friend in town for a hot cup of Zumbach’s exotic coffee.

Perhaps my next twitter should read, “ Gone to Z’s for a cup of Joe. Must recapture my mo-jo.  Say goodbye, cruel cyberspace, I’m off to join the human race. “

18 letters to spare.  Not bad.