The Last Luddite Gets Wired

The Last Luddite Gets Wired

Notes from different corners of the world.
June 1 1999 7:35 PM

The Last Luddite Gets Wired

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Beautiful Losers

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"Have at thee ...!" Ebenezer shouted, drawing his short-sword. " 'Tis thy life or mine, for another of thy evil options and I am lost!"

--The Sot-Weed Factor, John Barth, "The Laureate Acquires a Notebook"

The story so far: Under the rubric of "The Last Luddite Gets Wired," I made a deal with the editors of Slate last August in Seattle. They would stake me up to $3,500 to get myself a computer and get myself wired up to the Web, and in return I would do a series of dispatches reporting on my decision-making process--why I was doing it, what I chose to buy, and my reaction to entering the digital age.

In the first installment, I recounted the reasons for my resistance to cyberculture--less a Luddite desire to destroy technology than a lazy wish to avoid it, and a distaste for the snide know-it-all types who lord it over chat rooms with their wannabe witticisms. That and a genuine love for ink and electric typewriter and the process of writing on paper first with fountain pen and then with inky ribbon had put me in the position of being, if not the last Luddite, then the last writer I knew who didn't use a computer (although I recently read that Tom Wolfe wrote and rewrote all of A Man in Full on his old Olivetti). On the other hand, I confessed a paradoxical proprietary feeling for wired culture stemming from my role, or the role of one of my stories (on phone phreaks and the first computer hackers) in fostering Apple and hacker culture.

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And in fact it was the Apple question--or as I think of it, the "beautiful losers issue"--that was responsible for turning my decision-making process into a feverish, soul-searching, nine-month-long identity crisis.

At first I thought it was going to be easy: Hey, Bill Gates is buying me a computer-- what, me worry? I returned from Seattle and bought a giant stack of computer-buying guides, PC magazines, and books such as Buying a Computer for Dummies.

The first decision I thought would be easy--the Apple vs. PC decision. I was sure that if I was going to go techno, I might as well really go techno. I didn't feel like enlisting in the party of beautiful losers, which was the way I looked at Apple and Mac devotees then. And why shouldn't I feel this way? As far as Buying a Computer for Dummies was concerned, Macs barely existed. There wasn't even a paragraph devoted to making the choice between PC and Mac. It was assumed that even a dummy would know that. Macs were implicitly something that would only appeal to sub-dummies.

For a moment this sparked a rebellious impulse in me, but at the time Apple didn't even look like a beautiful loser. It just looked pathetic and sad. This was, you remember, summer 1998, before the introduction of the iMac and the PowerBook G3s, when Apple's market share, user share, and software share seemed to be plummeting in a way that even the return of Steve Jobs couldn't restore. I had a feeling that this was not the place nor the time to indulge in the romantic fantasy that there was some Kinder, Gentler, More-Artistic-and-Humane Side of the Force. Save the romance for my personal life, get a PC for my professional life, I reasoned.

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Having made, or so I thought, that first decision, I now had to choose a configuration: to get a monitor, mini-tower, and printer, or just a laptop and laser printer. That was pretty easy: I just didn't want one of those big, ugly, bulky monitors around. Why switch from my elegant, compact, graceful typewriter, my Olympia Report Deluxe, which was heavy but still portable, to tie myself to some toxic behemoth monitor. I knew a number of writers who had just a notebook and a printer, a notebook that didn't turn their apartment into a Dilbert cubicle, a notebook they could shift from room to room, chair to chair, travel on assignments with. And by skipping a monitor, I could go pretty high-end on a laptop and still maybe not go over the $3,500 line, the point where I'd no longer be spending Bill Gates' money and would have to start to shell out from my own somewhat less deep pockets.

That would work as long as I didn't want DVD, which would bring even the laptop/printer option cost over the line when you counted in software. But then I did want DVD. I decided I couldn't do without DVD. I'm on record as disdaining technology, but I love movies, I love renting them and watching them at home more than going to theaters, and the idea of being able to rent/buy them and travel around anywhere with them, DVD-style, was immensely seductive. Still, DVD would add, from what I calculated in catalogs and buying guides, some 500 bucks minimum, and I'd have to sacrifice other features, or the high-end versions of them, if I wanted to stay under the Bill Gates Cap.

Everyone I consulted told me I wouldn't need maximum memory or the very fastest chip, since I would probably not be doing graphics. But on the other hand, I did want superfast reception of graphics and streaming video and state-of-the-art sound, and a maximum-size active-matrix screen. At the same time, I began developing what, I'm told, is a not uncommon case of laptop lust. Just looking at them in my new favorite magazine, Portable Computing ("Maximizing the Technology"), caressing them in computer superstores, I fell in love with the design. They were as slender and elegant as supermodels and radiated similar effortless megawatt seductiveness. And unlike supermodels, I could have one. The richest man in the world was buying me one.

Talk about your proverbial kid in your proverbial candy store. I loved the way they were posed in the buying guides, backlit, back-leaning, coyly angled slightly away but still ... inviting. What was it about that pose (aside from the obvious) that the design evoked? Perhaps it was that other great triumph of modernist technological design, the automobile tail fin. Both offered, in different ways, on different levels, the illusion of Flight--not just physical but psychological. Floating across the fields of color in the computer magazine ads, the laptops looked chevronlike, winged. I loved the way the screens in the models in the ads all seemed to feature colorful pastoral landscape scenes, parks, deserts, lonely lakes with moody clouds, a theme park version of nature, a virtual version of nature, a new visual-arts genre: computer pastoral. The last survival of the natural world or a longing for it--or a memory of it--was there in the laptop landscapes in computer-buying guides.

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It was about this point that I found myself in the state of agitated frenzy that recalled to me one of my favorite chapters from one of my favorite American novels, The Sot-Weed Factor, by John Barth, the chapter called "The Laureate Acquires a Notebook." By the way, are you familiar with The Sot-Weed Factor? If you haven't read this massive comic epic, you are missing one of the most pleasurable reading experiences of your life, one of the smartest, funniest novels of the century. In fact, I'd suggest that everyone reading this dispatch on a screen, link up immediately with some online bookseller and order the handsome new Anchor edition of The Sot-Weed Factor. If you're a fanatic like myself, try to find the original 1960 Doubleday edition. Barth unaccountably cut some 60 pages from its original Falstaffian 800-page girth for the 1967 reissue. It's his privilege, of course. But with this kind of book, as the novelist Stanley Elkin liked to say, more is more (while I'm at it, let me also urge you to check out Elkin's two American picaresque masterpieces The Dick Gibson Show and The Franchiser. Oh, and while you're online ordering The Sot-Weed Factor, did I mention that my book Explaining Hitler is out in paperback this week?).

The Sot-Weed Factor is a book whose pure relentless reading pleasure was so intense it changed my life. It was, at the very least, a turning point in defining my relationship to technology and science. Picking it up once again to see how my computer-buying decision-making meltdown was uncannily presaged in the "Laureate Acquires a Notebook" chapter brought back a memory of a fork in the road toward the end of my tortured first year at Yale. When I had to make a choice: study and prepare for my final exam in physics, a course I had not been attending and whose calculus level was defeating me--or finish reading the last 400 pages of The Sot-Weed Factor, which I'd fatally fallen into at just the wrong time, and from which nothing, not even the prospect of the first failing grade of my life, could extricate me. I chose to finish the book, didn't even show up for the physics exam, a moment of self-definition that may have irrevocably enlisted me on the side of the Beautiful Losers rather than the techno winners in life.

But it was worth it. The Sot-Weed Factor, for those not familiar with it, poses as (and mocks) a 17th-century epic traveler's tale. One that tells the story of Ebenezer Cooke, a late-17th-century London coffeehouse hack "more ambitious than talented, and yet more talented than prudent." Cooke finagles his way into a commission from Lord Baltimore to voyage to his Maryland plantation and write an epic poem celebrating the glories of the New World colony and more particularly its chief cash crop: tobacco. (While revered by some as "that panacea, potable gold and philosophers' stone, a sovereign remedy for all diseases," as Robert Burton, author of The Anatomy of Melancholy--a genuine 17th -century masterpiece whose comic-pedantic, mock-philosophic tone The Sot-Weed Factor echoes--eulogized it, tobacco nonetheless also had a reputation as a notorious intoxicant drug of abuse, hence the name "sot-weed.")

In any case, to prepare himself for his poetic project, Ebenezer goes to Paternoster Row to buy a notebook.

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"What sort of notebook had you in mind?" the proprietor asks him.

"What sort?" repeated Ebenezer. "Are there sorts of notebooks then?"

What follows is a descent into a hell of choice, option, and indecision.

"Long notes, sir, or short ones?"

"Both, I suppose."

"Ah. And will you take these long and short notes at home, sir, or while traveling?"

"I'faith what difference to you? Both I should think. A mere silly notebook is all my craving." ...

"Very well, sir. ... Only I must know another wee thing."

"I'faith, 'tis a Cambridge examination! What is't now?"

"Is't thy wont to make these notes always at a desk, whether at home or abroad, or do you jot 'em down as they strike you, whether strolling, riding, or resting? And if the latter, do you yet n'er open 'em in the public view, or is't public be damned, ye'll write where't please you? And if the latter, would you have 'em think you a man whose taste is evidenced by all he owns; who is, you might say, in love with the world? A Geoffrey Chaucer? A Will Shakespeare? Or would you rather they took you for a Stoical fellow, that cares not a fig for this vale of imperfections, but hath his eyes fixed always on the Everlasting Beauties of the Spirit; a Plato, I mean, or a Don John Donne? 'Tis most necessary I should know."

And he's only begun. He goes on to pose the further choices of folio or quarto, cardboard or leather, unruled or ruled sheets, "a thin book, easy to carry but soon filled, or a fat one, cumbersome to travel with but able to store years of thought 'twixt single covers."

He then lays out the 16 preliminary options so far:

"Sixteen, sir; sixteen, if I may," Bragg said proudly. "Ye may have

A thin plain cardboard folio,

A thin plain cardboard quarto,

A thin plain leather folio,

A thin ruled cardboard folio,

A fat plain cardboard folio,

A thin plain leather quarto,

A thin plain cardboard quarto,

A fat plain cardboard quarto,

A thin ruled leather folio,

A fat plain leather folio,

A thin ruled leather quarto,

A fat ruled cardboard quarto,

A fat plain leather quarto,

A fat ruled leather folio, or

A fat ruled leather quarto."

"Stop!" cried Ebenezer, shaking his head. ... " 'Tis the Pit!"

It is at this point that a choice-maddened Ebenezer lunges at the notebook seller with his sword, crying, " 'Tis thy life or mine, for another of thy evil options and I am lost!"

Evil options indeed: Aside from an almost eerily accurate anticipation of the exact kinds of choices posed in choosing a notebook computer three centuries later, "The Laureate Acquires a Notebook" suggests what makes such choices so maddening (at least for some people, certainly for me): Choosing a notebook is also choosing a self, defining oneself, an act of self-definition. And I just wasn't sure I was ready for that.

Yes, I did make a choice, or a tentative choice back then, back in September of last year. I had my eye on a fully loaded DVD-equipped top-of-the-line Dell Inspiron notebook with a 14.1-inch XGA active-matrix TFT display screen, 96 megabytes of RAM, a 6.4-gigabyte Ultra ATA hard drive, a removable Combo 24x Max Variable CD-ROM and floppy drive, ESS 3-D Surround Sound and Hardware Wavetable, an "Intelligent Lithium Ion Battery" (and a "Second Intelligent Lithium Ion Battery"--I assumed so they could converse without getting lonely), a 56K Capable Gold Card Global Modem, MS Office 97 and Windows 98, upgradable for 99 bucks to 128 megabytes of RAM, which I intended to do even if I never needed it. And DVD, of course.

All for $3,499. Without printer, alas. I guess I'd still be able to say Bill Gates bought me my computer, but the printer would be on my dime. So, why Dell? Well, I just couldn't bring myself to go IBM, no matter how great its ThinkPads were said to be. It was a matter of self-definition. I wanted to go techno, yes, but there was just something too Darth Vader-ish about going IBM. I still recall with fondness that over-the-top, one-time-only 1984 Apple Super Bowl TV ad that featured a beautiful woman hammer thrower piercing the Big Brother/Big Blue Orwellian telescreen. Back when the Beautiful Losers looked like they might be winners after all. (What a delusion.)

After rejecting IBM, I felt there was little to choose from among the major brands in terms of features, price, and word-of-mouth reports. (Everybody had a horror story about just about every brand, and every brand had its fierce loyalists and advocates as well.)

What finally fixated me on the Dell Inspiron, I'm reluctant to say, but feel I must confess, was the name. Not Dell, but Inspiron. It seemed to whisper: "Inspire Ron." It virtually had my name written all over it.

Still, with my courteous but increasingly frustrated Slate editor, Cyrus Krohn, given to increasingly despairing pleas that I make a choice and start writing my dispatches, I just couldn't pull the trigger. And did nothing for six months.

It's hard to explain the delay. On the surface it was congestion and overscheduling in my life: I was still making appearances for my book, writing prefaces for the foreign editions, engaging in controversy over it. Still, that wasn't the whole story behind my delay, a delay that turned into a deep freeze for half a year. Something deeper was going on, something having to do, I think, with self-definition.

For me to go PC instead of Mac had taken on more than the dimensions of a personal choice. It would be a kind of statement, I began to fear. Particularly since I would be, in effect, thinking out loud about it in Slate, it would be a kind of public repudiation of Apple. If the Last Luddite refused to choose the Beautiful Losers, if the guy whose story gave birth to the Apple partnership of Jobs and Wozniak (see my first dispatch) wouldn't choose Apple, if a guy who clearly needed all the help the user-friendly Mac interface had to give wouldn't choose Apple, then who would? I began to feel like it would be somehow seen as the last nail in the Apple coffin.

But on the other hand, I didn't want to lock myself into the last dying embrace of a dying fringe cult brand the way it seemed Apple was becoming last year. And so I did nothing. Until the corpse began to stir of its own accord. Suddenly the iMac bloomed all over billboards in New York City, looking incredibly cool and inviting with a seductive plug-and-play promise. Maybe that's what I should do, I thought: Forget trying to spend every dollar of Bill Gates' subsidy, just get something cheap and quick, down and dirty, plug-and-play, and be done with it. Of course, the problem was I really did want DVD. And I really did want portability and--then began the slide--I really did want the fast chips and the most memory and the highest-end peripherals. And then Apple introduced a power-packed, immensely loaded, seductively designed new line of notebooks, the PowerBook G3s.

I wish I could say the Apple image ads had something to do with my eventual choice, but I must admit I feel an uneasy relationship to them. Albert Einstein, John Lennon, the Dalai Lama, et al., all (implicitly) expressing the new Apple slogan: "Think Different." I'm not always against the commodification of dissent, because commodification is often the only way dissent or heresy ever gets to edge its way into mainstream popular culture. And sometimes the power of a heretical point of view can transcend its commodifying context. It's remarkable, for instance, how many times '60s visionaries who changed history, for better or worse, were sent down the path of sedition and perdition by reading Time and Life magazines' ostensibly sneering but secretly appealing accounts of the Beat Movement in the late '50s. I wouldn't go so far as to say that Volvo's replication of Kerouac's poetry in its recent ads, or Nike's use of the Beatles' "Revolution" will have the same effect, will save any souls--but who knows?

But in any case it wasn't the "Think Different" ads that influenced my choice. If anything, they inspired in me a resistance--I don't like to be told how to think, same or different, same difference. If you start to think different because an ad tells you to think different, are you really thinking differently at all?

No, I must confess, there was an even more shameful marketing device that finally made me bite the bullet and make my choice. One even more shameful (almost) than choosing the Dell Inspiron because it seemed to say "Inspire Ron." This was the quotation from a review of the PowerBook G3 in Fortune, a quote which Apple shrewdly bannered in every print ad I saw: "Apple PowerBook G3, The Lamborghini of Laptops."

OK, call me superficial. Call me materialistic (although not until after you've read Harvard Professor Elaine Scarry's brilliant defense of materialism in The Body in Pain--well, a certain kind of material creation--as the beautiful externalization of consciousness. I bet she'd go for "the Lamborghini of Laptops"). Or write it off to a residual, ineradicable boy-loves-expensive-toys thing. But I wanted to own that "Lamborghini of Laptops." If I was going to have one expensive icon of technology in my life (nothing else I owned, no other gadget anyway, qualified as more than the Hyundai of its kind)--why not go for broke, especially if the richest man in the world was buying it for me?

And so I found a computer tutor (who advertised in the Writers' Guild Newsletter as an Apple specialist) and in consultation with her drew up a list of software and peripherals (including a bet-hedging Virtual PC package) and made the momentous call to a place she recommended called MacWarehouse. They promised to deliver overnight. The next day it arrived: a top-of-the-line PowerBook G3 equipped with (if you care) a 300-megahertz PowerPC G3 RISC processor, a 1-megabyte backside level 2 cache, a 14.1-inch (diagonal) active-matrix XGA color display screen, 4 megabytes of SGRAM, S-video and VGA output connectors, 64 megabytes of SDRAM expandable to 192 megabytes, 8-gigabyte hard drive, two expansion bays, built-in 10Base Ethernet, built-in modem for 56K flex and V.90, 7.8 pounds with battery and CD-ROM drive installed. Oh, yes, and removable DVD-ROM drive and DVD video PC card.

Price, $3,499. Just under the Bill Gates limit. So I could say he bought me my computer, although the total cost of hardware/software, including Hewlett-Packard LaserJet printer, external superdisc drive, Norton Anti-Virus, Norton Utilities, and Microsoft Office 98, Macintosh edition, was a hefty $5,600 and change. The question then became, would I ever use it? Or would I just gaze at it?

For the first two days--in part because I was waiting for my computer consultant to come over and help me set it up, and I was afraid I'd damage something trying it myself--I just gazed at the sleek matte-finish black slab with the discreet ivory-white Apple logo embossed on it. I was, I realized, acting not unlike the awestruck apes in the opening of 2001, warily inspecting the icon the Cosmic Space Brothers had set down in their midst to jump-start human evolution.

But I won't jump the gun. I'll save the account of what happened next, evolution or devolution, for my next dispatch.