A Damned, Digital Maze
also, a bit from Gogol on the Dnieper
Fair warning: I’m going to rant.
I’m going to talk about things I don’t understand at a technical level, but which I more and more understand at a human level. I’m going to make sweeping accusations and generic denouncements and all kinds of reductive, table-thumping provocations. (This newsletter is finally a Substack!) I don’t want to be provocative as a style. That’s not even a secondary goal. No, I’d like to rant for the good ol’ fashioned reason of being mad.
Every day I work—literally every day I work—I have to shrug my shoulders at a patron and say, “Sorry. It looks like there’s no workaround.” When this happens, I’m usually helping someone access their email, and if it’s not their email, it’s some other necessary site through which they’re supposed to finish their job application or get government assistance. You know, things necessary to life. “Sorry, that’s all I can do,” I say. “I think we’re locked out.”
If it’s not Google it’s Colorado’s ID.me or unemployment or confirming an appointment with Walgreens. If my patrons want to apply for a job they have to upload documents which only exist as paper, which means they have to scan to a USB drive or to email and they don’t have a USB drive and (you’ll remember) their email has locked them out. This will sound like I’m signaling some political talking point, but literally, I’m left with folks who tell me, “I drive a truck all day, you know?” We both shake our heads and grimly smile at our tech overlords, men and women who love to solve problems they themselves created.1
If this is old territory for you, if you’ve already thought about the digital barriers to modern life, have already considered the digital inefficiency of pretending eight steps on the computer is superior to three steps person-to-person, let me at least put a human face on some of this nonsense.
A woman whose first language wasn’t English came to my library recently. She was older. She needed to make an appointment to renew her license and had been attempting to do so for weeks. What was the problem? The Colorado DMV phone-tree wouldn’t even give a non-digital option until she told them she’d tried to sign up for an appointment online. The online form required information she didn’t have, would never have, and the person we eventually talked to just needed her name, license number, and birthdate. Why did the online form require so much more? Oh, to be efficient of course! To outsource the work to you, the user-consumer-citizen.
Another example: A regular patron, a homeless man, needed to create an email account. He wanted to use Gmail specifically for reasons that were personal, but pressing. Did he have a cell phone? No, not at the moment. As of January 2021, that means he can’t create an account. We’re not talking about two-step verification, but rather two-step registration. I convinced him to try a free email that doesn’t require this idiocy, but the problem’s come up again and again. If you don’t accede to every aspect of our digital future—buy the phone to get the email to scan the documents—then that future pretty much doesn’t give a shit that you exist.
To misquote Zadie Smith half-summarizing J.G. Ballard: we’re not fitting cars to people. We’re trying to re-shape people to better fit cars. And Gmail.
I’m convinced digitization, in its current form, has demonstrably hurt the efficacy of almost too many fields to name. In my own little library-world, too many workers spend as much time documenting their work as they do actually working. The sheer possibility of quantifying our output—listing every program and program outcome; listing every book glued, taped, or destroyed and not simply, gluing, taping, and replacing; recording an email request in addition to receiving the request—means we want to make our goals more quantifiable, to hell with whether or not it makes our goals more useful. Would you like to find a book? Please try to use our online catalog, a system vastly easier to approach than the card catalog, but much harder to navigate (and even less useful than speaking with a librarian).
This problem is everywhere, and everyone knows it. Do you wish your doctor spent more time with you? Blame their notes, those electronic demons ever floating above their heads, a process more time-consuming than physical notes and as little re-read. Have you ever been in a doctor’s office or a library or the middle of an application when the power went out? Does your doorbell depend on servers not going down? Maybe we should tie bells to some wires again.
Oh, there are some incredible upsides, and there’s no going back, and yadda yadda. I love my e-audioboooks. I’m writing this newsletter on Substack. I’m a digital peon like anyone else. The benefits are real and—especially for those who have disabilities that make some physical interfaces nearly impossible—often vital. But there is a specific frustration to digitization that won’t go away.
It’s not going to get easier. Digital literacy isn’t (just) a generational issue, its both a habit and a factor of complication. Until the last five to ten years, my grandpa understood computers better than I ever will, and he still uses them just fine. He’s always tinkered, he’s an engineer, and even though he professes not to “know a damn thing about this phone” he’s the most responsive near-nonagenarian FaceTimer I’ve ever met. He’s always had the luxury of experience and temperament when it comes to technology. He lived through the birth of computers and it never confused him.
What I see every single day are the hoops that digitization requires for the purposes of keeping digitization relevant. The biggest one is security. Nothing online is secure and everyone is worried about it and now Gmail, the world’s largest email provider, won’t let you create an email—something necessary for job applications, government log-ins, and more—without having a cell phone. How many years until biological security measures (fingerprints, face-scans) become the norm and we’re all required to have smartphones? Arguably, face-scans and their ilk make security barriers easier for the user, but only by way of requiring yet another device both more prohibitive in value and more intrusive on one’s privacy. Navigating too many digital landscapes, these junk-heaps of kludge-ridden ruins, takes familiarity, and in some cases complex problem-solving.
Too many of my patrons are screwed no matter what. They know that. They’ve known it their whole lives. Society is tilted against them, a great and inhuman set of armor astride the world’s multifaceted war horse. Technology mindlessly applied—and it seems to be applied in almost no other fashion—is part of this problem, and too often works against even those of us with time, skills, and the willingness to give Apple a biometric record of our face.2
I know, I know. There really is no going back, and for lots of good reasons, but digitization is not inherently easier. Mostly, it’s just the sum total of what its name implies: it’s less physical. Sometimes, that’s a wonder. Too much of the time, though, it’s print the form to sign the form to scan the form to USB to send from a computer to complete the online form that triggers an email that requires you to have a cell phone. That’s not a problem with “learning a computer.” That’s a computer’s needs being put before our own.
Like almost everyone, except for exactly one person in my life, I don’t know much about Ukraine. I’m not sure you need to have a master’s in Russian studies to lament the present and coming violence, but since I don’t know anything, I’ll just leave y’all with this excerpt from Gogol’s “The Terrible Vengeance.” Gogol was born in Sorochyntsi, a Ukrainian town back when Ukraine was part of the Russian empire, and he went to school in Nizhyn, a town with beautiful churches, if Wikipedia is to be believed.
I live by a river, not a very impressive one, and I think of Gogol’s famous description of the Dnieper all the time. May God have mercy.
Wondrous is the Dnieper in calm weather, when freely and smoothly he races his full waters through forests and hills. No rippling, no roaring. You look and do not know if his majestic breadth is moving or not, and you fancy he is all molded of glass, as if a blue mirror roadway, of boundless width, of endless length, hovers and meanders over the green world. It is a delight then for the hot sun to look down on high and plunge its rays into the chill of the glassy waters and for the coastal forests to be brightly reflected in them. Green-curled! they crowd to the waters together with wildflowers and, bending down, gaze into them and cannot have enough of it, enough of admiring their own bright image, and they smile to it and greet it, nodding their branches. But into the middle of the Dnieper they dare not look: no one except the sun and the blue sky looks there. Rare is the bird that flies to the middle of the Dnieper! Magnificent! no river in the world can equal him. Wondrous is the Dnieper, too, on a warm summer night, when everything falls asleep—man, beast, and bird—and God alone grandly surveys heaven and earth and grandly shakes his robes. 3
That “Green-curled!” is positively Hopkinsian, and I wonder if the translators had him in their ear when they rendered the Russian as such.
Now to log off this digital platform and listen to my iPhone while walking nowhere near a river and hoping for peace in Ukraine,4 the Middle East, and more.
Yes, yes. #NotAllTechies.
Which I haven’t actually done, for the record. I’ve seen Minority Report damn it! I am not having someone take out my eyes when I finally insist our system of pre-crime is corrupt!