September 20th, 2010

Mistrusting the computer machine

My dad is a private pilot. He flew up here to Birmingham yesterday and took me for a ride. We talked a lot about the physics of flying. Wow, he is a font of information. Of course, this is not nearly as impressive as the fact that when I was in college, he was building an airplane in the basement. Not a radio-controlled airplane—he’s built those too, and boats, and helicopters—but an actual airplane that he was going to sit in and pilot. He didn’t finish it because he gave himself carpal tunnel syndrome and needed surgery because of all of the repetitive riveting. He sold the airplane instead and I am still puzzling over the fact that there is a market out there for half-built homemade airplanes.

And yet, brilliant and technically proficient as he is, this was how he started his e-mail to me when we were discussing what time he would pick me up:

“Jennifer, I hate this computer machine.”

He had typed a long message to me, tried to change something, and deleted the whole thing without understanding how or why. I laughed so hard when I saw this because I know how he feels.

I consider myself fairly proficient on computers. I know about Ctrl-Z, for instance (which reverses what you just did in many word processing programs, and which probably would have brought my dad’s message back). My parents often call me to ask me to explain for the fifteenth time how to cut and paste text in Word, or how to attach a photo to an e-mail message. I know HTML language and write the code for my web site, such as it is. But when something goes wrong with my computer—I can’t get online, for instance—I have no idea what to do. I call my husband. And I wonder if that’s why I have not bought an e-reader.

I’ve been thinking about this a lot ever since my MTV Books editor told me that Forget You is selling a much higher proportion of e-books versus print books than they had expected. The explanation that jumps to my mind is that I suspect most of my readers are chicks between the ages of 16 and 35—old enough to have a credit card so they can buy online, but young enough to be part of the main group using the newest technologies.

But I’m not far out of that group myself. What is it about the e-book technology that makes me stare blankly at it and say, “No thanks”? I have enjoyed a long presentation by Angela James, head of Carina Press, the digital-first division of Harlequin Books, in which she extolled the virtues of e-reading. The only music I buy nowadays is single songs for my iPod. I do patronize bookstores, but I also buy a lot of books and other stuff online. I often snatch reading time when I’m out and about in town, and an e-reader would be perfect for that.

I wonder if it’s residual fear. My parents bought one of the very first home computers, a TRS-80 with 4K of memory, when they were first offered by Radio Shack back in the early 1980s. I taught myself the BASIC language and programmed it to draw little pictures and stuff, but the only way to save those programs was on a cassette recorder (!!!), which usually didn’t work. I am very accustomed to losing a whole afternoon’s work. I purchased my own first computer in 1990 (AFTER I had completed my first novel by writing longhand and typing up those pages on a typewriter, unfortunately). In that version of Word Perfect, if the spell check came to a word containing a q or a z, the screen would go blank. You had to be savvy enough to save the document before you started spell checking, and to save your spell check changes very often, to avoid losing your work. If you have been using a computer as long as I have, inevitably you have a long litany of catastrophes that happened back when the technology was less reliable.

So, is THAT why I don’t buy an e-reader? I’m not sure. When everything has worked on my computer for a while, I start to get cocky, but then something else happens. For instance, I’ve been using my iPod for 5 years now. At some point, iTunes made me change to a different account, and now it won’t allow me to play the songs I purchased with the old account. I've had problems with iTunes before and I know from experience that it is absolutely impossible to get help from an actual live person there, so I haven't even tried to solve the problem. I've just given up. This is the kind of treatment I expect from e-readers. The technology will work for a while, and then it won't. It sure is easier to open a book.

How about you? Are you an e-book reader? What do you think the difference is between the believers and the nonbelievers?
  • Current Mood
    curious curious