THE WIDGET REBELLION

When they began providing our gadgets and machines with artificial intelligence I thought life would become easier. Let our appliances do most of the thinking and worrying, I thought, but there have been problems and scarey indications of a digital power grab.

In dealing with this modern generation of contraptions, I get along better with the ones that listen to reason or at least respond to threats. There’s my digital bathroom scale for instance. I’ve found when I step on it, look down at the dial and shout, “OH, NO!” followed by a brisk foot stomp, there’s an immediate reduction of five pounds. Now that’s what I call technical progress. There’s nothing about this in the instruction book. It’s just something the scale and I have worked out together.

Then there’s my German-made talking camera that gradually took on a rather superior attitude. It was helpful and polite at first. “The lens cap you have forgotten to remove, bitte,” it would say, or “Achtung! Die batterie ist kaput!” But as time passed a disrectful tone crept in. I was sometimes addressed as “dummkopf” or “noodlehead” instead of “Mein Herr”. The camera and I have had some hot arguments and I’m thinking of deporting the ill-mannered schweinhundt back to Dusseldorf.”

Perhaps we’ve given up too much sovereignty to these intimidating machines. My car, for instance, nags me with dashboard beeps and flashes about maintaining sensible speeds, mandatory tire pressures and scheduled oil changes. I’m punished sometimes for some breach of driver conduct by the sudden popping of the trunk lid while I’m cruising in heavy traffic. I then hear what might be just a rattle, but it sounds like a metallic chuckle to me. Who’s in charge here? Are we back to the old days when reaching a destination depended on one’s horse’s attitude?

The most overbearing gizmos are our computers. This very essay may not get typed and posted if my computer decides against it. At any moment it might accuse me of an unacceptable operation or fatal error and send my copy to some remote region of Cyberland.

Something happened last week that gave me a chill. My daughter Carolyn called to say she’d received a strange Email. “It’s about you, Dad and it’s very uncomplimentary,” she said. “It was sent under your screen name and probably went to everyone on your contact list, about 30 addressees.”

I told her I hadn’t sent any Emails for days and asked about the message. “Well, it says you’re boorish, intellectually challenged, a poor speller and typist and addicted to playing solitaire and it’s signed, ‘ The Treacherous Beast’.”

“Oh, oh! That’s what I called my computer this morning when it lost two pages of my copy. It must be sending vindictive Emails on its own.”

“One other thing, Dad, it called you a noodlehead.”

“That sounds bad. It looks like it’s been talking to my German camera. I’m going to switch back to my friendly old Underwood typewriter. I hope Woody hasn’t joined the rebellion.”

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