Jerome Shea       January 18, 2010      Weekend Wonk

Yet again I have been almost brought low by technology. I say “almost” because I haven’t given up yet, though it may be a near thing. A certain outfit that I sometimes work for has sent me an on-line form to fill out for them. It wasn’t always this way. These people and I used to communicate by snail mail. I would get hard copies in the mail and I would fill them out and send them back. Simple. But now, more and more, it is all done on-line, and the point is that I have no choice but to play their demonic game. I think there is something very wrong about this. I feel myself being squished under the wheels of a Juggernaut and, worse, I see no hope of reversing—or even stopping—this trend.

Here is an example. I was asked in this on-line form to designate an emergency contact, should something happen to me at one of their far-flung functions. I referenced the Long Suffering Diana, as I always do. But I did something—I still am not sure what—to anger the computer program. It then told me to correct whatever I had filled in. I did so, as near as I could guess how to do it. It still was not satisfied, and kept badgering me over and over until, in a frustrated rage, I gave up. I will skip several other snafus and tell you that after some emails and phone calls I finally got near the end of the form, to a place that called for an “electronic signature.” Here I was way out of my depth, and beyond the capacity of my antiquated eMac (remember those?). Not to worry. I forwarded the stuff from my study to the kitchen alcove where Diana reigns with her almost state-of-the-art Mac. You should know, also, that Diana is very computer savvy—maybe not as much as a twenty-something, but not shabby by any measure. We actually got the electronic signature accomplished (!), but then this pop-up popped up: “An error has occurred during the submit process. Cannot process content of type/html; charset=UTF-8.”

Yeah, I know, that “charset=UTF-8” trips me up every time. I’m sure it catches you, too, huh?

This is not only madness but rank bullying, and an electronic way of saying “our way or the highway.” Maybe they should just put us old farts on an ice floe. What really gets me about this is that they hold all the cards: you play their game or you fold, go away, don’t bother them any more—get out of the way, you old relic! And I know there is absolutely nothing I can do about it.

Well, if I cannot avoid being squished, at least I can squeal, so I fired off a rather intemperate email. A few days later—while I was composing a more temperate email, hoping to get out of this limbo—the phone rang. It was a nice lady from company headquarters in New Jersey and the exchange went something like this:

“Jerome Shea?”


“Jerome, I have your latest email here on screen, and you are clearly stressed and frustrated.”

I babbled some sort of apology for my heated email, but she then said, in a voice like honey:

“No, we quite understand, Jerome. You had every reason to be frustrated. But—Jerome?—no more stress, no more frustration, no more on-line stuff. I am going to attach that document to an email right now. You download it, print it out, sign it with an ordinary pen, and FAX—no, snail mail—it back to us. How’s that, Jerome?”

“How’s that”? “How’s THAT”? Tears welled in my eyes. It felt as if his own sainted mother had awakened little Jerome from a bad dream and clutched him to her bosom. I began to gibber and squeak. (Here it should be added that this “electronic signature” nonsense is evidently not ready for prime time: they must have had bushels of irate complaints, we peasants threatening to take up our pitchforks.)

Of course, that was a wonderful outcome, better than I had dared dream. But when the euphoria passed, I realized that this was only an example of what I have come to call technoblesse oblige. They can afford to show us mercy because they have the power to show us mercy—and the power to take it away. If I am lucky, they will be contacting me again soon to invite me to an essay reading session next June. And if I want to read those essays, all the arrangements will have to be made on-line, including my travel arrangements. (It used to be that you simply told them when you wanted to leave and come back, and they did the rest. No more. As a friend said, “Why should they pay underlings anymore when they can make YOU their underling?”)

Welcome to the future, I suppose. Thank goodness for the help that our for-now-up-to-date Mac and my savvy wife can provide. Otherwise I suppose that I would have to go to the local library and try my luck with a PC (good luck with that). Or I could swallow my pride (just a light snack in these matters) and pay one of my bright students twenty bucks do their bidding—twenty bucks that would come out of my pocket, not theirs.

I told a friend that I should probably instead write a wonk on anger management.

But not yet.

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