Iniquitous Computing by Edward M. Lerner

Iniquitous Computing by Edward M. Lerner

Iniquitous Computing by Edward M. Lerner

“There is heavy traffic on Monument Avenue, David.”

“Do not call me David,” I responded sternly to the automobile. It had a galling trait, by which it regularly forgot—or pretended to; I had my suspicions—that machines are not to address one so familiarly. “I nonetheless prefer,”—as I do every day—”the Monument Avenue route.” The leafy canopy of the antebellum boulevard was soothing. Alas, traversing that verdant oasis encompassed only a small portion of my journey home.

Home … that sanctuary from modern “conveniences.”

“Yes, Dr. Whitaker.”

A moment of blessed silence passed. “The hourly news summary is almost on, Doctor. Shall I play that?” The latest interruption came from the automobile’s radio.

“You may.” I thought the infernal gadget less likely to express “helpful” suggestions if it felt it was already being useful. In truth, I had little interest in the day’s events. “Low volume.”

A few seconds of soft-spoken announcer’s voice were followed by a low blat for attention. “We put the you in ubiquitous computing,” crowed a commercial.

That the offensive catch-phrase came from the sponsor, not my always-eager-to-please radio, did little to mollify me. “Radio off,” I ordered, before articulation of the offending company’s name could further raise my choler.

I am a literary historian by education and first love, and presently curator of the Edgar Allan Poe Museum. I am also—there is no denying it—somewhat misplaced in my own time. Give me the formulaic roles and rules of the nineteenth century. Give me the courtesy and respect to which, scholar that I am, I would have thought my accomplishments entitled me. And give me—please, give me—that which is so rare in these chaotic times: occasional quiet in which to ponder “Many a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore.”

Oh, that I were free to study within the private confines of my nineteenth-century abode. That residence was not nearly so fine as what the natives all referred to as The Old Stone House, the small estate-become-museum near Poe’s own one-time Richmond residence and his first place of employment, the Southern Literary Messenger. But even in the author’s time, this district near the James River lay deep within the (dare I say it?) tell-tale heart of the city. My modest dwelling, at the opposite end of this disagreeable commute, was in a secluded, nearly rural, location. Thus life and art condemned me, I mused, nudging antiquarian spectacles back up my long nose, to a diurnal running of the gauntlet of modern life.

“Buy twelve bagels, get three free.” The advertisement function of the vehicle, like a thousand other devices that surrounded and confounded me, had a mind of its own. “Bodacious Bagel is only two minutes ahead. Shall we stop there, David?”

More delay? No! I tamped down a growing rage before my pacemaker—I am not opposed to all change!—made any overhasty pronouncements to the car’s navigational computer. I was in no mood for a for-my-own-good detour to the nearest emergency room.

Ubiquitous computing … the damnable jingle had it mostly correct. Computers were pervasive, in every appliance, gadget, label and thingamabob. And they conspired with each other, surreptitiously, in what a museum patron, mistaking my politeness for interest, had once meaninglessly described to me as a “self-organizing, context-aware, wireless, local area network.” And many computers spoke also to some kind of global positioning system. A GPS locator, the patron had said, was a component now so inexpensive that one was standard in every vehicle and cell phone. I inferred that the automobile manufacturer received some minuscule payment for each targeted commercial message inflicted upon me. Alas, penurious scholar that I am (as was Poe, of course), I could not afford to pay the stipend that would suppress the accursed unit.

My jaw, as if it, too, had a mind of its own, clenched. That which the first advertisement had had incorrect was its usage of pronouns. There was no “you” in ubiquitous. There was, at least, no “you” if by “you” the sponsor meant “me.” I felt myself sinking into a grammatical bog. Breathing deeply, willing my heart to slow itself, I forced out the words, “Straight home.”

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Categories: Edward Lerner