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Senior Correspondent

My wife and my ex- have only one thing in common. Both are/were displeased with the amount of time I spend "on the computer." My normal, and usually legitimate excuse is that being "on the computer" isn't really one thing.  Playing golf, for example, is one thing. You swing clubs at a small white ball for several hours. I don't do that anymore for a variety of reasons, but primarily because as you grow older time becomes more precious. I am simply no longer willing to spend 6 hours walking in a garden-like setting, were stopping to photograph the flowers is frowned upon.

But being "on the computer" is rarely one thing. True, I work on the computer. I write lectures on the computer. I design PowerPoint presentations for my classes on the computer. I communicate with my students, teaching assistants and colleagues on the computer. I also interface with the demands and opportunities of everyday life on the computer. I pay bills, register the car, buy eBooks, watch movies and sports — basic "screen potato" type stuff.

But being on the computer is also creative space for me. Much of my art has a digital component to it, either in the original creation or in "post-production" enhancement, printing or distribution. I am also now used to writing on a screen from "prosetry" like this:

Number 34

You’d think these midnight muses
Might occasionally acknowledge
Tomorrow’s obligations

Number 33

Though not a poet,
I might have been
If I had had less time.

To longer compositions like these blog posts.

So I am quite aware that I spend a good deal of time "on the computer." But more than that, I am quite aware of the relationship that exists between the machine and I. [Having just double-checked the Internet to make sure it wasn't "the machine and me."]  And that relationship concerns me.

This week I have been eerily reminded of Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey: "I'm sorry, Dave. I'm afraid I can't do that." There are two levels of frustration. First was a flurry of hardware issues — the gray screen of death descending. A problem my gurus tracked — they think — to my having failed to install a "critical update" of Office for Mac. Then there were software and hardware compatibility issues — the Star Trek-like control deck in my classroom couldn't see my Mac laptop.  Something I had sort of planned for by mailing the lecture Powerpoint to my Yahoo email account so I was able to run the class from the built in PC. The ClassTech people tracked that issue down to screen display issues that now have been – we think — resolved. Then I went home to record video lectures for my class only to discover the screen display correction for the classroom was incompatible with the settings necessary for the Mediasite record system. My Mediasite guru talked me through the necessary settings and now we have – we think – solved that issue. Then I spent a couple of hours on a couple of days trying to get all my TAs legal through Human Resources new KABA online 19th century time clock. I will pass over the incident with the DMV website and getting the car registration updated, and the snafu with Blue Cross And Blue Shield who emailed me a statement for a stranger – because those were not officially "work related."

But finally, I was editing a class website using Moodle's [an online Learning Management System] WYSIWYG editor [What You See Is What You Get website editor] to try to post a list of names and emails for the class.  Moodle wanted to list them all with no spaces between the lines or with 4 spaces between each line.  I ventured into the HTML code behind the editor to try the corrections.  That is when Moodle said "I'm sorry, Robert. I'm afraid I can't do that." Well, not in so many words, but functionally it amounted to the same thing.

There are two problematic issues imbedded in this ongoing fiasco.  First, I felt a real sense of accomplishment every time my tech colleagues and I overcame the various ghosts in the machine and bent both hardware and software to my will.  It made it easier to accept Moodle/Hal's eventual assertion that it "couldn't do that."  After all, we had won most of the battles, and the Moodle gurus had forwarded a glitch report on to the Moodle Wizards behind the curtain. But second and less sanguine was the realization that I had spent more than 90% of my time "on the job as a university professor" doing tasks that had absolutely nothing to do with the intellectual task of teaching my students.  I had, instead, done mechanical work dedicated to getting words and pictures on a screen, mundane details necessary to even begin doing the "job I had signed up for": teaching.

This is technology's glass cage, the cage that so concerns me.  I can defend the time I spend "on the computer" as long as I control what the computer does for me, as long as I can bend it to my will, as long as it helps me do the things I desire to better and more efficiently.  More and more often it seems that I find myself bumping into the glass bars of this beautiful cage: "I'm sorry, Robert. I'm afraid I can't do that.  But I can help you do this instead, and look I can play music while you do it.  This is one of your favorite songs, right?  And maybe we should try this shade of yellow.  Isn't that nice? Yes, I thought you'd like it.  You used it last week in Photoshop.  .  .  ." 

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