Having just finished reading Jaron Lanier’s good-natured rant against those who fall into the trap of mistakenly believing and acting as if technology is human (You Are Not a Gadget: A Manifesto), I caught myself falling into the trap.
Because I have been successfully using Google Chat as a tool for conducting interviews for writing projects as well as for delivering just-in-time learning, I’ve come to rely on it—which in and of itself is not a bad practice. The ability to type questions and receive written responses in a way that immediately produces a complete and printable transcript of interviews is a great way to assure accuracy and avoid misunderstandings.
It’s when it first began to let me down—note the insidious way the words “let me down” so easily sneak into this discourse, as if Google Chat were a friend instead of a sophisticated gadget—that I first felt the sense of betrayal usually reserved for sentient beings: “Oh, Google Chat, how could you let me down?” (Actually, the question was much more expletive-laden when it popped into my head, but there’s no need to be overly graphic here and offend both of you who are reading this.)
The problem began in the middle of an interview for the book Lori Reed and I are co-writing for ALA Editions. The colleague who was sitting across the country from me and responding to my typed questions seemed to be taking longer than usual to respond. After several moments of silence, I shifted my attention to an incoming call—which was, of course, from the interviewee to determine whether I had seen a response he had sent moments earlier. Realizing that our online conversation in the live chat box was showing up less than complete, we stayed on the phone as we attempted to continue, and soon realized that the onscreen version wasn’t conveying everything that was being stored in the transcript in our Gmail accounts. Relieved that we weren’t losing anything, but puzzled by the anomaly, we finished as quickly as we could, assumed that we had somehow angered the tech gods (clearly lower case deities), and soon went our separate ways. (An aside, out of fairness to Google Chat—see, there I go again, anthropomorphizing the tech tool; Lanier would be laughing at my plight if he could see me now—I should admit that the technology of fountain pens has failed me in the writing of the first draft of this piece; my pen just ran out of ink, forcing me to resort to the back-up technology of having a second fountain pen in hand. Let’s chalk it up to user error since I’m the one who forgot to refill the ink cartridge this morning, and return to the point of my own Lanierian rant.)
Returning to Google Chat a few days later for an interview with a different colleague, I warned the interviewee that we might need to use our (old technology) phones as a back-up if the earlier problem repeated itself. Which, of course, it did. With a vengeance. About 30 minutes after we began, some of our transmissions stopped appearing in the live chat box, but continued to appear in the chat history. Then delays started occurring in the postings to the chat history—just a moment or two, but enough to be annoyingly disruptive. Then the chat history stopped picking up lines in no discernable pattern, but the live chat box retrieved some of what was missing from the transcript. If we hadn’t been laughing so much at our own plight, we probably would have wept. But we persevered by seeking the creative solution of combining the live chat, the incomplete transcript, and the phone conversation, and were lucky to eventually end up with the complete transcript we both needed.
This is where Lanier’s could have served as a voice of reason and good counsel if I had already been reading his book. I began turning to what he variously refers to as “the hive”—that faceless group of online collaborators whom we sometimes mistake for a single online intelligent entity rather than a loosely knit group of individuals contributing to an ongoing conversation—or “cybernetic totalists,” or, more humanely, “the tribe.” I posted a brief description of the glitch and sought advice from others in a couple of very active discussion groups, but received no response. The hive, apparently, was asleep. I then tried to reach Google representatives online, and still had no success.
Turning to Yahoo! Messenger as an alternative, I at least was able to determine that my (non-sentient) computer was not preventing me from using any form of online chat as a way to continue my interviews. But I still haven’t completely resolved the problems Google Chat is causing. And I know Google Chat is not an enemy. Nor is it a friend. It just is. And I, apparently, am not a gadget. But I am a writer in search of solutions for the problems that the gadgets in my life present.
Now, back to the draft of that book in progress. With our without the gadgets.