Quick, count the number of computing devices within six feet of you right now. For me, that number is four. It would be five if I counted the laser printer, which does contain more computing power than Apollo 11. But there’s really only one criterion when determining whether a device deserves to be called a computer–can you play Solitaire on it?

Here’s a peek at my office:

The Future Home of SkyNet
The Future Home of SkyNet

How did it come to this? I remember the day I got a pager. It seemed like science fiction, just one step away from having a Star Trek communicator three inches above my left nipple. I thought, “No matter where I go, now they can always reach me. My life won’t be worth living.”

My life was still worth living, at least most of the time, but I had no more excuses for not coming when my bosses called me. I was like a circus tiger perpetually crouched on a pedestal. I couldn’t rest because the jump-through-a-flaming-hoop command might come at any moment. It’s an imperfect analogy, since I was unable to leap onto the VP of Marketing and bite his face off, although if I’d been able I feel certain I’d have done it.

Cell phones made this worse. Suddenly I couldn’t dawdle before I answered a page, pretending I was at the movies or in church. When the phone rang someone was right there on the other end demanding that I talk to them immediately no matter what I was doing. I could have let it go to voice mail, but nothing curdles my happy face like sitting on an un-checked voice mail that I suspect won’t be much fun to listen to. Might as well answer the damned call and get the misery out of the way.

I perform at a themed festival set about 500 years before cell phones were invented. It seems like half our paying customers are on their phones at any particular moment. I have to treat those phones as something other than cell phones. So, I tell people they have enormous, hideous leeches pressed to the side of their head, sucking out their brains. No one’s ever been offended. Almost everyone has laughed. Lots of people have voiced their sincere agreement with my premise.

Cell phones are wonderful devices that we cherish, and upgrade, and trick out with Lady Gaga ring tones, but on some level we despise them. They chain us to those who would steal the minutes of our irreplaceable lives.

I love computers though. I remember the day I bought my first computer, and I remember the day I first built a computer. I remember the day I swore I’d never build another computer because a Japanese assembly line could build them cheaper than I could buy the parts. There’s nothing bad about computers. Except that they enable our own poor judgement to steal the minutes of our irreplaceable lives. I go on the internet to look for shoes, and five hours later I’m staring at animated, dancing muskrats in fishnet stockings singing “The Boys Are Back In Town.” I don’t remember how I got there. If I did, I might not be able to stand the shame.

Now all the devices have been combined. Every cell phone has Solitaire. You can make phone calls from your computer. Each device links you to people and information all over the world. Each device enables you and every person in the world to waste your time like your life was just an all-you-can-eat buffet with endless shrimp fried rice.

If all this new-fangled modern computing is like Star Trek come to life, I’d like to report that it has great promise but is somewhat flawed. I’d expect better from an advanced, utopian society that seems to have no problem with inter-species sex. Maybe we should have started with different technologies, like those steaks that pop out of the walls.

I'm including this photo of a cat with a cell phone because... well, it's a damn cat. By the way the photo was taken with an iPhone.
I’m including this photo of a cat with a cell phone because… well, it’s a damn cat. By the way the photo was taken with an iPhone.

 Photo by Josh Semans.

When a new thing comes along there’s always a guy standing around expressing indignation. When the spear was invented, this guy said, “What do I need that spear thing for? My rock is perfectly good. It’ll kill anything a spear will kill. And I can’t believe you paid three muskrat skins for that thing. Don’t you know you can just pick a rock up off the ground?”

You’ll be happy to hear that you no longer have to listen to that son of a bitch, because I killed him. And while I’m confessing, I must also admit that that son of a bitch was me.

This homicide was effected over a long period of time, like stirring a pinch of arsenic each morning into a man’s Fruit Loops. One day I was standing strong, saying, “Bah!” to haircuts that cost over $8 and crying, “Insanity!” to sneakers more complex than Converse high tops. The next day I was mocking this dumb-ass “World Wide Web” thing that cost the crazy amount of $10 a month to access. Then the next day I’m signing up for my own email account, and the day after that I’m hyperventilating if my home network goes down for 10 minutes. Now I regularly send email to a guy who sits less than eight feet away from me rather than walk three steps around the corner to talk to him. I have crumbled like a tower of cheese.

It’s not that I’m a Luddite—my geek cred goes back to 1981, when my first computer had a smoking hot 48 kilobytes of RAM. It’s just that I grew up in the church of “What’s that damned thing good for?” and I considered myself a faithful disciple. My positions were clear. Why should someone lay out a bucket of money each month for a mobile phone when there’s a pay phone on every corner? I have 500 video cassettes containing all the movies I love, so why should I pay 20 bucks a pop to replace them with these DVD things? Why spend money on a digital video recorder when I don’t even watch the stupid TV that much anyway?

My clear positions have subsequently eroded. I didn’t just get a cell phone, I bought an iPhone, which is the personification of frivolous crap. I amassed a DVD collection of such splendor that I intend to be buried with it, much like Tutankhamun and his golden urns. Initially my DVR grabbed episodes of “House” and “Bones” when I happened to be out of town, but eventually I commanded it to seek out and capture gems such as “Afro Samurai”. After all of that, my indignation was grievously wounded, and I was desperate for a bulwark upon which to make my stand.

Along came Facebook. I could not imagine a single useful thing that Facebook might provide that could justify the untold hours poured into it like the blood of innocents cast into a belching volcano. I was clear and immovable on this. I would not budge. Then people posted on Facebook some things that were important to me, and I couldn’t see them any other way. So, I signed up and looked at them. That was fine, but I didn’t care to hear when people went to the cleaners, or got laid, or wanted me to farm their fish, or whatever. I didn’t need to share at that level. If I shit a titanium turd in the image of Christ I might post something about it, but probably not.

I was standing firm. I stood firm in a firm and solidly immovable manner. And so I stood for a while. Then I was possessed by the spirit of an alcoholic carnival geek from Alabama, and I posted something that I thought was important. Then I commented on someone else’s post that I thought was cool. Later on I uploaded some photos, and I answered a poll. Then I created a Facebook application. And then I did a lot more stuff until finally, just recently, I created a post on Facebook about my water heater being inspected. That was the act that murdered me and my indignation.

My indignation and I would like a tomb if you don’t mind. Marble cherubs would be nice, and perhaps unicorns if they’re tastefully done. Please lay my indignation and me to rest within this tomb, sing a couple of weepy songs, and put us in the past with hopefully fond memories. And on the tomb please carve the words: INDIGNATION – “This must have cost a fortune. You couldn’t just dig a hole and throw me in it?”

No cherubs? No unicorns? This sucks.


Twelve years ago it was easy to hide from my boss. He couldn’t find me after work unless he was psychic, because I didn’t have a damned cell phone. Once I got a mobile phone, it was the same as being at work all the time. Seriously, I felt like a Domino’s Pizza franchise. But whenever my boss interrupted my mom’s birthday party or a dinner that I hoped would lead to sex, he could only talk. He couldn’t actually give me any work to do right then.

Four years ago I bought an iPhone, even though I knew it was a stupid thing to do. It was so slick and cool and sexy and fun. I had no more will to resist than a turnip on rufies. But once I clasped my iPhone in my hand, my boss was not limited to making me talk about work at inconvenient times. Now he could send me actual work whenever he wanted and expect me to do that work right away. That’s a lot to pay for the ability to receive spam wherever you go, play solitaire on the toilet, and wave your iPhone around like a lightsaber. But I accepted that I’d made that bargain with the Great Satan Apple, and in return I started looking for some neat apps like flashlights and restaurant finders. And despite the fact that the iPhone had wrecked my personal life, I used it so much that I began wishing I could pay some corrupt doctor to graft the thing onto my forearm. I didn’t even care that it would make me look like a cyborg and might make Sheldon Cooper die from envy.

I swore I’d never buy an iPad. I mean, what the hell? It doesn’t make phone calls, and it’s not a full computer, so what good is it? I bought one last year, and I have no idea how it happened. I just remember walking out of Best Buy with the box in my hand. Again, turnip on rufies. Within a week I felt despondent that I’d lived my life without an iPad up to that point. Now if I allow my iPad to get more than twenty feet away from me I begin weeping.

This is all so sick. And I blame it on the apps, those tiny bits of software that make my iPhone and iPad do stuff. Sometimes that stuff is fun or useful, like IMDB, or Angry Birds, or the Amazon app that lets you spend more money faster because you don’t have to be at a computer. But for every cool app there are 10,000 that are hacked-together, shit-sucking wastes of irreplaceable minutes that we could have spent on something valuable like refinishing furniture or cooking a pie. For example, I have several apps that turn my phone into a $400 whoopee cushion, including Farts-a-Lot, Wet Fart Machine, Fart Knocker, Jedi Mind Fart, and Farts Like an Egyptian.

If I’m going to accept being a minion of Apple Darkness, I demand superlative apps that provide far greater value than we have seen to this point. I mean astounding value. I want apps that will change my life. I now challenge the app development community to give us apps like these:

Dumbass Firewall: You talk, you text, and you email using your phone and tablet. You can communicate faster and to more people than ever before. Within seconds you can tell dozens or hundreds of people that you’re a thoughtless, grunting twit, with your head so far up your ass you can smell your pancreas. This app will save you from your stupidity in real time by screening every outgoing scrap of voice and text for moronic and inflammatory statements that could get you beaten up, divorced, or imprisoned. The app will dump these chunks of stupid-as-hell into a folder for you to review when you calm down or sober up.

Perky Pickup Lines: Almost no person on Earth is good at walking up to an attractive stranger and saying something that’s not idiotic. There may have been a few, but I’m certain their friends soon killed them. So, every unattached person can use an app that analyzes the situation and provides a great pickup line. Desperate single people will no longer have to say things like, “What time do you have to get back to the insane asylum, ‘cause I’m crazy about you,” or, “Do you have a job?” to make an impression. For an extra 99 cents you could install the add-on Great Go The Hell Away Lines, providing the perfect words to crush some pushy asshole’s ego down to the size of a carbon atom.

Calorie Savant: The App Store bulges with apps to count, record, identify, estimate, and plan calories for every item a human can eat without dying. They all suck. They suck because they exist in an idealized world in which every day is under control and every meal is a rational transaction between you and a baby spinach salad. Calorie Savant would consider the day’s events and the proximity of various foods in providing calorie estimates. You may have planned to eat a 200 calorie granola bar after work, but Calorie Savant would recognize that you got a lousy performance review and that jerk in Purchasing hit on you again, so it dumps the granola bar from its plans and substitutes that 3,200 calorie bag of Double Stuff Oreos on the top shelf. Accurate information is the key to victory.

Blowhard Deactivator: Mobile devices keep you connected at all times. Unfortunately, you’re connected to people, and more unfortunately, some of those people are blowhards. You’re familiar with blowhards—those folk who pound out their political, religious, and moral opinions across the social bandwidth, trying to shout down all dissent, calling everybody ignorant lackeys, and ruining the fun for everyone else. Blowhard Deactivator would analyze the blowhard’s latest blaring manifesto and scan the internet for no less than 20 dissenting sources, then drop those links onto the offender like the firebombing of Dresden. For 99 cents you could install an add-on that tracks whatever the blowhard writes on Wikipedia and then automatically erases the dolt’s moronic rants behind him.

Fair Tip: This app is more of a public service than a utility, but it will help you in the end. Tip calculators seem pretty simple. In fact, if we weren’t a nation of math cretins, we wouldn’t need this kind of app. The problem is that these apps let people pick the tip percentage, and people haven’t learned that 12% is a crappy tip for someone who brought you a nice bowl of chili and makes a whopping $3.00 an hour. In fact, 12% is the kind of tip that condemns you to hell for being a stingy bastard. The Fair Tip app would assume that 20% is the standard tip, and for every point you dial it lower, the actual tip percentage would be cranked up one point. If you select 12%, then Fair Tip will secretly calculate the tip at 28%. If you’re like most people you’ll never catch on. If you do catch on and find some other way to calculate your crappy 12% tip, then I guess you’ll just have to go to hell.

Scrubbing Bubbles: All of us have made poor decisions. Our poor decisions generally don’t last forever, since people tend to forget or even die after a while, which resolves the situation nicely. But poor decisions made on the internet do not go away. That sloppy, ranting, tequila-fueled love poem you wrote to that actress who was hot five years ago but you can’t stand now—it’s archived on LiveJournal. Your heavy metal manifesto from your anarchist phase is still on YouTube. And that picture of you hanging upside down and naked on the front door of the First Baptist Church? Your potential employers at The Children’s Miracle Network are going to love it. You need Scrubbing Bubbles, the app that scours the internet for every single mention of your foolish self and annihilates it as if it were flushed down a toilet connected to a black hole. After this app has done its work, no one who’s not in your physical presence will believe that you ever lived.

There’s the challenge, app-writers. Make all this connectivity worth the pain. I want to see some prototypes in two months. I have to go now—while I was writing this I got a voice mail, three texts, and an email with five attachments from my boss.

The triumphant launch of the new app Maybe It’s Another Drill- ACK! that simulates the sound of a stormtrooper’s head being sliced off by a lightsaber.

I have an addiction, as dirty as they come, and I expect it will destroy me eventually. This addiction writhes at my left hand every day like a surly viper. It lurks behind my desktop computer, to the left of my secondary monitor, in the shadow of my laptop, and beneath my iPad. In that spot I keep a notebook. I mean the kind with dead trees in it. And, God forgive me, a pen. There’s nothing digital about the damn things. They are as analog as a rock.

This wouldn’t be so bad if I just kept them out of some misplaced sentimentality, like my mother keeps her wind-up Victrola phonograph. But I actually take them out and use them where people can see me. When I show up at a meeting, the others sit focused on their laptops, their faces drawing nearer and nearer as if they plan to French kiss the screen. I glance around holding my notebook thinking about all the emails I don’t currently have to answer. When the meeting starts, my buddies attend 10% of it and spend 90% answering emails, checking auctions, and flaming people on Facebook. I attend 50% of the meeting and spend 50% doodling. I’m five times as effective as those guys and a hell of a lot more relaxed. But I know it’s wrong.

Doodling is becoming a lost art, by the way. A person’s doodles reveal a lot about him, and it’s pretty therapeutic. I like cross-hatch doodling myself, but flower doodles, airplane doodles, and penguin doodles each have their charms. If you try to doodle on a laptop though, you just get smudges and odd looks.

I don’t hate technology. I love it. Around my workplace I’m the guy to go to when any of those Microsoft products is kicking your ass. I can make them sing like Beverly Sills. But I can’t get over one thing, despite my shame. Technology is really, really good at doing stuff with ideas once you get them into the document, or spreadsheet, or whatever. But technology sucks at helping you come up with ideas in the first place. I’m a little afraid to say that, in case Microsoft hears me and changes all the keyboard shortcuts just to make me throw myself off a bridge in despair.

I’ll try to explain what I mean. Last week I asked my assistant, Flex, to solve a hard, creative problem for me while I sat around thinking up ways to intimidate people who annoy me. Flex works hard and is a smart young guy, so I felt confident he’d knock this out in an hour or so. I strolled down the hall to see Flex after an hour and said, “Is your solution perfect yet?”

“Almost,” Flex said, although he was thinking so hard his face was wrinkled like a Shar Pei. “I just need to work out a couple of things…”

I leaned over his shoulder and saw a screen full of bullet points so disorganized that each might have come from a different country, or maybe a different reality.

Flex pushed his blond surfer hair out of his eyes and said, “I’m trying to get these dumb boxes to line up and be the same color, and the font looks worse than my prom date.” He squinted and flailed at the mouse like it was a live rodent. “Aw, man! That’s even crappier!”

I sat down beside Flex and leaned over to switch off his monitor’s power. He looked at me as if I’d just given him a lobotomy. I said, “Flex, swear not tell anybody I said this, but the software is in your way. Every time you start thinking about the problem, the software distracts you with details that only it gives a shit about. We don’t care whether the text is red or orange, or whether the font looks like it’s passed through a moose intestine. We just want a good, creative solution. We can address any moose intestine issues later.”

Flex narrowed his eyes and curled his lip at me as much as he could and still seem respectful. I knew what he needed. He needed a hit of the non-digital hard stuff. But I wasn’t sure Flex had ever touched a pen. He might recognize one from an old movie, but then again he might think it was a chopstick.

I stifled a sigh and said, “New assignment, Flex. Tomorrow is my anniversary. Yeah, I’ve been married longer than you’ve been alive, so just shut up. I want you to come up with a love letter for me to give my wife. If you do a good job, you can have the rest of the day off.”

“That’s pretty weird,” Flex said.

“Wait until you’re my age. It’ll seem as tame as ‘See Jane Run.’ Don’t make it sound too romantic. It’s got to sound like an old guy wrote it. You’ve got an hour.” I shoved down the feeling that maybe I’d done something wrong, and I walked back to the Cave of Vengeance and Woe, which is what people call my office.

One hour later Flex poked his head through my office door. He smiled the smile he normally uses when telling me about the latest girl he’d like to sleep with. “Here’s your letter!” he said, and he set his laptop on the corner of my desk. He tossed himself into a chair in that way only fit, young people who’ve never been to the chiropractor can do. The screen read:

  • Significant “I love you” challenge
    –   Previously sounded good
            >   Positive impact on self and others
            >   Extremely high ease of use
            >   Overall satisfaction at highest levels
  • Current “I love you” has diminished in quality
    –   Satisfaction dropping on several dimensions
    –   Root cause of quality problems identified
            >   Partial mitigation achieved, but quality still lacking
    –   “I love you” still operational
            >   Reduced functionality may be acceptable

I leaned back and looked at Flex’s eyes, which were full of mischievous glitter. “You know I like to start with positive feedback,” I said, and Flex nodded. “Well, this is appalling. This is probably the worst love letter in history. I’m sure chimpanzees do better all the time. It’s repugnant to anyone with a brain, and if I were to show it around I think every woman on Earth would want to murder you, and quite rightly so.”

Flex mumbled, “That’s the positive feedback?”

I nodded and said, “Yep. The constructive feedback is that this may be salvageable, and if you want to avoid spending the next three weekends revising labor projections, I’ll give you another chance. I’ll bet you used Powerpoint for this, right?”

Flex nodded.

“I can help you with that,” I said, standing and towering over Flex with the majesty of the Statue of Liberty, if the statue was a little more butch. “Shut off your god damn computer and use this!” I didn’t quite hurl the notebook and pen at Flex, but I think he did get a paper cut on his chin.

He looked like he wanted to question me, or maybe slap me. I stared from my vantage point of confidence and authority that was partly false. I knew I was right, but to the rest of the world I was just a near-extinct organism scratching on stone tablets in the primordial ooze. Then Flex’s shoulders dropped and he stood to drag himself back down the hall. “You have two hours!” I called after him.

Later that day Flex shuffled into my office, and he held out the notebook. He showed all the confidence of a schoolboy handing in a three-page assignment with big letters, lots of spaces, and liberal use of the phrase, “And then the next thing that happened was…” I accepted the notebook and read the page:

My “I love you” is not what it was. It once rang like a polished chime, and yours made a harmony. We split the air, and we laughed at how we sounded, and people smiled when they heard us. I poured myself into the way we sounded, and you held all that music with no strain. No one could convince me that we weren’t the biggest celebration, that I wasn’t the luckiest, that no sound could touch us.

Not what it was. I clash sometimes, and you make sour notes, on occasion. Where is that harmony that felt like the best holiday, that was the most fun, and the one that would last forever? We’ve made music that no one ever makes if they can avoid it, although everyone plays it before the end. It was hard, but at least it wasn’t silence. We held hands and said no to silence. My “I love you” is not what it was, but it’s my chime against the stillness. It rings if you listen hard, and you make a harmony sometimes. We laugh at how we sound, and once in a great while people smile when they hear us.

I looked hard at Flex and said, “Holy shit! This is just what I need. Good job, man!” Flex offered a crust of a smile. “Do you see what you can do when you think about the ideas instead of the software and all its formatting and bullet points and crap?”

He breathed, probably for the first time in two hours, and he gave me a bigger smile. “Yeah, that helped,” he said.

“This will work great,” I said. “Take Friday afternoon off, son. And by the way, where’d you find this? Some romance site? Google+? What? I want to tell my wife where it came from.”

Flex looked surprised and said, “You said write you a letter. Do you mean I could have just copied something off the internet?” Flex turned a little red under his tan. “Well, at least if you do this kind of junk at Christmas I know I can just rip off a song or the Bible or something.”

“You wrote this, Flex? Damn, you’re like the Muhammad Ali of romance.” He stared at me, and I realized he had no idea who Muhammad Ali is. “Take all day Friday off. Back to work for now though.”

Flex grinned at that, and he bounced out of his chair. That’s when I did it. I know it was wrong, but I did it anyway. I said, “Hey, keep writing love letters, and I bet every girl in town will want to sleep with you.”

Flex paused, and then he smiled as if I’d given him a chocolate Corvette full of bourbon and Superbowl tickets. He walked out of the Cave, swaggering a little, and I thought, “That’s right, son, it’s like crack. The first hit is free.”