I confess that at times in my life when I have been confronted by some dazzling new technology that seems irresistible, I have gathered my last few remaining vestiges of dignity around me and cried, “Be off, be off damn you, Avaunt, avaunt, you worm-faced fellows of the night, a pox on all your technologies.”
Much good that it did me. I remember resisting the electric typewriter until the very last possible moment. Hardly had I accustomed myself to its strange rhythms than they were pushing these odd word-processors on me, conditional on learning a technology that seemed so complicated I thought I could safely ignore it all and retreat back into my trusty Olivetti portable.
Some hope: I wrote a whole book on that little typewriter, and when I delivered the manuscript to a woman in the Assembly of First Nations, who had commissioned the work, she asked, “What sort of disc are you giving it to us on?
“Disc?” I responded. “What is a disc?” (This conversation actually happened.)
Her alarm --- she would have to scan my whole manuscript in before they could even look at it --- told me that the time had come: if I didn't get a computer, I would never have another job. So I surrendered, but with great reluctance.
So far I have managed not to surrender to what is represented to me as the imperative need to have a telephone that not only talks to you, but takes your picture and that of your interlocutor, and stores your favourite books and songs, and keeps your financial information on hand at any moment of the day or night. Call that a telephone? In a pig’s eye it is. I can do without one.
Now that I have reached the mellow years often mistakenly described as the age of wisdom, I am able to look back on these defeats with a more settled mind, and, am even able to marvel at my youthful foolishness. Of all the technological marvels that have overcome us, the most useful and to me inexplicable, has been the email. I have no idea how it works, but it seems that almost overnight the method by which one could send a letter to the other side of the world, which would take some weeks, with more weeks before one could expect a reply, has been telescoped into ten minutes, or even less.
I remember in the 1960s during a weekend visit I was making to a friend who lived in a stately British home, reading in one of the many regimental year books lining his walls, that when the British were fighting wars on the Northwest Frontier in the 1840s, their soldiers might get into some difficulty, and would have sent off a request to the home office for a decision, let’s suppose for reinforcements. That request would take no less than three months to arrive in London, be considered, and the reinforcements to be dispatched, by which time the beleaguered soldiers might well have been wiped out or have retreated to safety, leaving the territory in the hands of the ferocious natives. (I remember from that year book an article describing the brave attack of the British soldiers on the ferocious Hottentots in Africa, culminating in an ambush as a result of which “poor Wrottesley is dead,” news that arrived in London months after the event. I remember leaving that extremely revealing weekend in the stately home bewildered at the many places the regiment had fought in ---- not only India and Africa, but also Rio de Janeiro, Jamaica, even Montreal. What business did they have in any of these places?
I was living in England during the years of the Wilson government, which was not, in my opinion, the fiasco that is usually described these days, but was rather a government that passed many extremely useful and long-overdue measures of social reform (such as the end of theatre censorship, the legalization of homosexuality, and so on.) Harold Wilson seemed always to be popping off to the other side of the Atlantic, or Pacific (“and the Atlantic isn’t romantic,” he might well have hummed after the old tune, “and the Pacific isn’t what it’s cracked up to be!”) and I remember thinking how amazing that he could undertake these huge journeys, arrive back suffering from debilitating jet lag, and yet stand before the microphones at the airport after his arrival, and discourse on the latest matter of concern that had developed during his absence. I remember thinking: wow, that must be some pressure, to live that kind of life!
These reflections, tending to dismiss all our technologies, have been brought on by a visit I made yesterday to our neighbourhood optician/optometrist, Michael Toulch, pleading with him to equip me with new glasses that would fix all these deleterious effects on my eye-sight that have followed my arrival in my Tenth Decade. His assistant placed me before a couple of machines into which I had to stare --- “open wide, big, big” was the command --- blew a couple of puffs of air into my eyes, and handed me on to the master himself who tested my sight against different charts. Eventually he asked, “You still driving?”
“No, I gave it up a few years ago.”
“You could drive again if you ever felt like it. I don’t see any problem. Your glasses are perfectly okay for what you need….I will recommend a rather better eye-drop than the one you have, and you say you read a lot? You must make sure you have a bright light, it could be right there over your shoulder..…. I am not in the business of selling lights, unfortunately, I’m supposed to be selling glasses, but….”
So, an honest man to the core, he sent me away with nothing but encouragement, telling me in what good shape my eyes seemed to be. I have found reading much easier since he told me that. Even the small type seems clearer.
I find, however, that in thinking about technologies, I tend to return all the time to how they have repeatedly saved my life, or something closely akin to that A few years ago I fractured the Achilles tendon in my right ankle. It never completely healed, and ever since I have had this feeling that something --- god knows what it could be, something terrible, no doubt --- was falling down from the atrophying muscles in my upper leg into the base of my foot where it feels like a slab of parchment has taken up residence, with what drastic future consequences, only time will tell.
Last week I went back to the doctor --- orthopedist is it? Dr. Ruth Chaytor, at the Jewish General --- who ventured the opinion that a damaged or pinched nerve in my back was probably the cause of my strange feeling in my foot. An X-ray revealed I had a lot of arthritis in my back, but after all, at my age….
So, okay, it’s all imaginary about my eyes and leg. But what wasn’t imaginary thirty years ago was my swollen prostate gland, and its devastating effects on my urinary channel. If that had gone untreated, I feel quite certain, I would never have been able to survive, if only because I could not have lasted more than a few months of being awakened up to 10 times a night with urgent, but essentially unfufillable longings to evacuate.
This brings to mind something I observed when I was 23 and living in an Indian village, a new, experimental village designed to uplift the life of the ancient villages all around. This was in 1951, three years after India and Pakistan separated to the accompaniment of one of the greatest peacetime outbursts of murder and mayhem ever experienced in history, killing millions and displacing millions more. I remember on a visit to one of these villages running across a peasant suffering from excruciating toothache. He had tied a bandage right around his face, from head to chin, the only thing he could think of that might give him some relief, poor fellow. It struck me at the time: I did not have much money in those days, but, faced with a similar problem, I did have enough to get me the 85 miles to Delhi where a dentist, using the miraculous technology of the period, was able to give me a filling, and relieve my pain. Of course, the peasants, among the world’s poorest people, had even greater problems. One wandered into our village one day with the news that he had lost a child. Lost him? How could he have lost him? He had wandered off. Wandered off? Had he looked for him? No, he had not looked for him. A quick search found the small child sitting under a tree, lost and abandoned in the surrounding scrub. The peasant had more children than he could feed.
My readers, few as you are, may feel that these remarks, ranging as they do from my prostate gland to the miseries of the Indian peasantry, are so disparate in nature that they have reached what should be the tolerable limits of irrelevance to each other. But hang in there, old chums, I have one more piece of evidence, in favour of technology, as I have experienced it: only in the last two years has the full weight of our technological society been called in to save my life. No ifs and buts about it this time: the impact is quite certain. I am still alive because of it.
About this time two years ago, for example, a urologist reached into my bladder during a procedure called a cystoscope and, at what seemed to me to be the last minute, withdrew a collection of blood clots that appeared to have been gathering for years, eager and ready to deliver the coup de grace. I know for sure that I could not have lived much longer without this magical procedure by this stolid old beggar, the urologist, Dr Samuel Aronson, applying his skills and his wondrous machine to help me with his technology.
Since then, as attentive readers will know, I have been taking a pill prescribed by Dr. Jason Agulnik, an oncological pulmonologist, designed to stabilize the growth of a cancer in my lungs, without which pill --- I hesitate to keep repeating myself --- I am pretty sure I would now be dead.
So, this is my story and I am sticking to it. I am alive today, not only because of the wonders of technology, but even more because of the miracle of socialized medicine, which incorporates the ethic that we are all everyman’s keeper. I wholeheartedly thank all you taxpayers for your share in meeting the cost of my life-saving pill. Don’t think I don’t appreciate it. I am ecstatic in my praise of you all.
Wot the hell, as I have been known to remark before, toujours gai, toujours gai!