Confessions of a Digital Curmudgeon
By Steven M. Edwards
I don’t want to sound like I’m out of touch, but there are certain things about the digital age that just don’t appeal to me.
Take selfies. I don’t understand why people want to take pictures of themselves. When others take pictures of me, they are never accurate. Instead of being tall and thin with a full head of hair, I appear in photographs to be somewhat short and stout, with hardly any hair at all. If the pictures that others take of me are so bad, even when they are taken by professional photographers, I can’t imagine how much worse they would be if I were to venture into the self-made world of selfies. I prefer the picture that I have of myself in my mind’s eye. I feel better about myself that way; more self-confident. If I had to confront the selfie-me every day, I might just stay home. With a self-image of someone like Gregory Peck, I can go out into the world and walk and talk like Gregory Peck – self-assured, urbane, smooth, and really cool.
I also don’t understand why people are interested in blogs and other services that express frank opinions of them on the Internet. I, for one, have never Googled myself. I don’t want to know what everyone thinks of me. I know what I think of me, and that’s good enough. What others think of me will either be (1) consistent with what I think or (2) contrary to my opinion. If they are consistent, I will not learn anything by Googling myself. If they are different, I will be tempted to change who I am. I don’t want to change who I am. I have spent a lifetime developing my own, unique Jeffersonian personality. I’m not going to change my personality the way someone might change a product as a result of test marketing. I have always followed the credo of that great American philosopher, Davy Crockett (or was it Fess Parker): “Be sure you’re right and then go ahead.” As a result, I have often disagreed with others and gone my own way, and more often than not I have been right (although I don’t have many friends). If you followed the herd, you might have been in favor of burning people at the stake or owning other human beings in another era. Things like that are probably going on today; most of us just don’t know what they are. I would like to think that I would be capable of saying, no, this is wrong. I fear that as a result of the intense personal scrutiny that people receive on the Internet, we are all going to evolve into the same person someday. That would be bad.
Another thing that bugs me about the Internet is the number of ways that exist for receiving information. There is email, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram and probably others that only people under 40 know about. I like getting lots of information, but it would be nice to receive it through one pipeline. I barely have time to get through my emails each day, so I have foresworn other forms of digital communication. I don’t want people to be able to claim that they have put me on notice of something by tweeting it.
I recall fondly the good old days when you arrived at the office and there might be five or six memoranda in your inbox. They were usually prepared with care, and I always read them with care. I might even prepare a response, but only if I had something important to say – as opposed to “thanks” or “up yours too.” I would formulate my thoughts carefully and read my memo over several times to make sure there were no typos and the grammar was correct. I would try to say something insightful or profound, conscious of the possibility that what I wrote could become part of a historical record that someone, someday might look at to determine whether my colleagues and I were serious people or totally insane. And after I finished writing this memo, I still had many hours left in the day that I could devote to research, writing, or talking to people about interesting subjects. Think of that, a conversation – how quaint.
In the digital age, I sometimes find myself having spent the entire day reading hundreds of emails and having nothing to show for it. Not only is that bad for the soul, it is bad for billing. How can you charge a client hundreds of dollars an hour when the description on the bill is simply “reading emails”? On a big case there can be more than 100 lawyers on an e-mail list, each of whom feels compelled to say something in response to whatever has been said before. A conversation can go on for an entire day and end with the conclusion “never mind,” but all of the back and forth may end up on the clients’ bills. I don’t necessarily think this should be avoided. Just as an infinite number of monkeys with an infinite number of word processors can create Shakespeare, a healthy interchange can lead to enlightenment. But I sympathize with clients that are frustrated by the process – unless they, of course, are the ones who initiate or perpetuate the exchange.
Another problem I have with the digital age is that half of the time the damn things don’t work. I can’t begin to tell you how many times I have encountered the phenomenon where everything seems to be going fine but the IT department has made a change or an upgrade and suddenly the system becomes dysfunctional. The explanation is often that an important bell or whistle has been added, but that often makes no difference to me because I didn’t use most of the functions that previously were available.. All I need is on, off, the ability to receive emails and the ability to type and send emails. Note that I did not include delete in this list. I hate to delete things because I never know what is going to be important in the future. As a result, I have a computer with a super large memory and a program that archives my emails in a chronological order. I got this system after my assistant caught me punching my computer because it was too slow. She was coming into my office as I was performing this act and said: “Did you just do what I think you did.” After rejecting a series of lame excuses – such as “I was taking off my glasses and my hand slipped” – she decided I needed help, of the digital kind. Now I have all my emails in chronological order going back to 2004, and it’s amazingly easy to find things. The only exception is emails that have been put in folders; I have difficulty finding them because I can never remember the name of the folder.
You might ask what about ads and junk-mail – but I don’t delete them either. I find it’s easier to click to the next e-mail than to take the time to decide whether to delete and to press the delete button. Recently, my IT department implemented a new system where suspected junk-mail is kept in a holding pen, and I must read a description of the item and then decide whether it should be released or embargoed forever. This process takes me a lot longer than the previous process, and it doesn’t work on my BlackBerry. As a result of this innovation, I now have to spend more time in the office each day just to get through all of my emails.
I could finish my emails at home, but that presents other problems. When I click on Internet Explorer, I am often told that this page cannot be found. That means my router is not working. I don’t know how to fix a router, but I have learned that it may work if I unplug it and plug it back in. The means I have to find the plug, but my wife has taught me how to do that. Now I can solve the router problem in less than five minutes and move on to the challenge of remotely accessing my system. This requires me to find an access code on my BlackBerry, which can be problematic if my BlackBerry has run out of juice. Charging up the BlackBerry may take a few more minutes, but once that’s done and I have the secret code, I am ready to roll – unless, of course, a screen pops up and I have to do something else. For example, my firewall could be out of date, my printer could be out of ink, or I may need an upgrade. If I press no or cancel, I may not be able to go on to the next step. If I press yes, my system may crash completely. It’s hard to know which one is right. I once installed a new version of Windows, only to find that it was incompatible with something my firm was running. It took several hours, with the assistance of a help desk, to “de-install” that upgrade. Most of the time, however, I can usually get on the system in about 15 minutes and read my emails, although that is difficult because the glass on my screen is cracked in several places, a victim of my hand slipping again.
Apple and Microsoft
I thought one solution might be to buy an iPad, but this created more problems than it solved. My work computer uses Microsoft and the iPad is an Apple product. Guess what? They don’t always talk to each other. People will send me track-changes on a Word document, but I can’t see them because they don’t show up on iPad. I once went through a whole trial and couldn’t understand why my co-counsel never made any of the changes I suggested to the briefs we were filing. We eventually realized that I was typing on a PC and he was using an iPad. I guess the good news is we won the case. Maybe we would have lost if he had incorporated the changes I was suggesting.
I hope to solve many of my computer problems this fall by getting an iPhone. I have been warned, however, that I may have trouble because my fingers are too fat for typing on the iPhone.
Another problem with cell phones is they tend to run out of juice. I was recently on my way to meet my wife and friends for dinner but forgot the name and address of the restaurant. I couldn’t call because my phone had run out of juice. I had to go back to the office to look up the address on my computer because there are no pay phones anymore. As a result, I was a half-hour late for dinner. It turned out that the restaurant we were supposed to meet at was too crowded, so my wife and friends went elsewhere. I had no idea where they were and no way of reaching them. I was about to give up when I spotted a friend in the restaurant and asked to use his iPhone. I called my wife and found the new location, but that happy ending begs the question: Why does the advent of iPhones mean we can’t have pay phones anymore? Did Steve Jobs buy up all the pay phones right before he died? Being without juice is like being dead. You can’t communicate with anyone. To be alive, you need a phone with a charge. I have juice, therefore I am (take that Descartes, you aging hippie).
I am also a little nervous about an iPhone because I wonder how I can whisper something furtively into the mouthpiece without strangers eavesdropping on my conversation. I still have an old fashioned flip phone, and when I want to tell someone something in secret I can cup my hand over the mouthpiece and have a confidential conversation – maybe even communicate something that’s privileged. Will that be impossible when I have an iPhone? Perhaps. Perhaps I can get rich by inventing a designer cover that runs from a person’s mouth to the iPhone. It can be called, fittingly, the mouthpiece.
But maybe soon there will be no need for privileged telephone conversations. Maybe there will be no need for lawyers either. We can all be replaced by computers. If we are all taking selfies so we look the same, and we modify our behavior so the blogs like us, and we don’t have time to think or read or write, and we can’t have confidential conversations with our clients anymore, there is no reason we can’t be replaced by computers. You might ask whether computers can give clients sound legal advice, but clients can be replaced by computers too. No one will know the difference.