Jack Off: A Break from Your Computer

The Jack Daniels Corporation has its own World Wide Web Site. Stumbling upon it pretty much knocked me off the fence I was sitting on over whether anything having to do with computers, (not just the Web), has any value for the average human. But the Web is a good place to start. This Jack Daniels Website has buttons which you can click to hear the sounds of various Jack Daniels products being poured. The purpose of this is elusive. Here's the spiel that gets presented to halfway intelligent people to convince them the world wide web is a good thing: It's a new way to present information, a way that empowers users to get the information they want, not just what someone else wants them to have. This is accomplished through networked hypertext. Hypertext, as you probably already know, means that text can branch off in several directions by being linked at various keywords to other texts, which are networked -- hooked together -- in this case by the Internet. In theory, as you also probably know, a text can refer to, or be referred to by, any other text on the Internet. And you don't have to look it up, you just go there. It's like an evolution of the concept of footnotes, where footnotes stop being footnotes and take over the main trajectory of a document. You go where you want, however your interest is sustained. Pretty cool. Pretty empowering. So what are people doing -- the people with Web access -- with all this new power and freedom? Pretty much what they did before there was a World Wide Web. Channel surfing. The wealth of TV channels we got through cable and satellites -- which promised us programming for everyone's tastes and no more three network hegemony -- in practice only entices us to always check and see "what else is on". Similarly, the ability to move laterally through information on the Web is a constant enticement to keep moving, keep following the links, see where the next one leads. This is shamelessly admitted and accepted: the name of the software with which one accesses the Web is called a browser -- hardly the name for a revolutionary information tool. It comes down to the fact that there are people out there clicking buttons with their mouse to hear a recording of a Jack Daniels product being poured into a glass. It doesn't matter why they're doing it -- for the absurdity of it maybe. Most of these people probably have a bottle of JD around the house somewhere, or some other liquor that sounds quite like it, and they're using this exciting tool that costs them $10-$30 a month to simulate pouring it into a glass. We know what pouring a drink sounds like. We want to be entertained by the stupidity of it -- it's being simulated straight from Lynchburg over our own damn phone wires by idiots in suits who paid some pale opportunists 10 grand to try and help them sell whisky.So we have these things called computers now and they affect every part of our lives. Two things should concern us: (1) they aren't real, and (2) you'll never understand them.1) They aren't real. OK nothing's real, but let's use as a temporary working definition: something is real if you can feel it. Godfather of cyberpunk William Gibson's Neuromancer uses very tactile imagery to describe its protagonist's travels within computer space: code-breaking software is called 'ice'; the protagonist experiences pain, risks death, gets his circuits fried. Many people hold this book as the shape of things to come. Technological patron saint Marshall McLuhan might also have had some things to say about the "tactile" nature of cyberspace as it exists right now. But there is still a difference between pouring a glass of whisky and clicking a button and pretending it's being poured. You click your mouse to press a virtual button. It appears to recoil, but there is no sense that you have exerted pressure on something. Some older word processors will allow you to interface directly with a printer in real time, so that each keystroke you type results in a letter being printed on the paper, like a typewriter -- except that unlike a typewriter, there is a force that is decidedly not you causing the letters to be printed on the page. It is this concept of simulation, one that becomes more pervasive as computers play a larger role in our lives, that is widening the distance between us and the things we interact with. London's Mute, a journal of technological critique, bears the motto "Proud to be flesh." Computers deny the flesh, circumvent it. This is good news for someone like Steven Hawking, but bad news for the rest of us. So let's remember we have bodies. For every hour you spend writing email, spend an hour writing letters longhand. For every hour you spend "browsing" the web, spend an hour browsing a bookstore, a park, a lover's body.2) You'll never understand them. Not just you, but everybody. Before computers we had complex personal tools -- like cars -- the kind without computer chips. The Model A was a car that could be maintained by the user with just a can of oil and a crescent wrench -- but this does not deny the complexity or the importance of the Model A. The cotton gin, a machine that is credited with nothing less than ushering in the industrial revolution, was likewise a tool that could be dissembled and understood. But not only is it not possible to dismantle a computer and figure it out, it is not even possible to truly dismantle a computer. You make a leap of faith when you hit the silicon chip. You can't repair it, or hot-wire it, or jerry-rig it. You can't peek at the code that runs your word processor or spreadsheet -- and even if you could, it wouldn't make any sense to you without an advanced degree in electronic engineering. What we interact with as computer users -- the "graphical user-interfaces" and user-friendly "desktop managers" -- are very aptly and candidly called "shells," and through them we believe we understand our tools. But there's a whole lot of fake cause-and-affect that dissolves into voodoo real fast when you try and explain it. You click a print icon in your word processor and you generate hard copy. That's all you need to know. But it's a long way from Gutenburg. A computer is like a cranky god. Maybe you'll sometimes find a burnt offering will appease it. But you'll never have any control over the way it works. You'll never locate the mechanisms or principles which drive it. The oracle you call with the 800 number will pretend to speak the god's language, but they're as in the dark as you are about what's really going on. Explain a silicon chip. Explain Random Access Memory. The ancient Greeks couldn't live life without their gods, who tended to be capricious and unpredictable. We're finding it pretty hard to do without ours as well. Do the best you can.

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