The Mechanical End

Calling it a day in the information age.

A tiny email program graphic, exploded to great size.

“Technology brings us closer”—conventional advertising wisdom, and it sells long distance plans, but breaking up in the information age is sadder than it needs to be.

I have a girlfriend number on my phone's speed dial, embossed with a B from four years ago, then scratched out and replaced with a C three years ago, and replaced with an M less than a year ago. The phone is complicated and I don't remember how to un-program it. Every time something ends, the most recent letter sits there with the ghosts of the other letters below it, inviting a finger-slip, until the night I sit down figure out the phone's rules.

Then the email. Archive or delete? I always archive. It pricks the heart to drag the folder from the top-level inbox into a subfolder and remove the rule that automatically prioritized and filtered her messages. And then to rename the folder from “_M——,” the prefixing underscore originally there to give that folder a higher alphabetic placement than all others, to “D——_M——,” “Firstname_Lastname,” my standard email-sorting scheme.

Finally, the Friends and Family cell phone plan (not currently friends, not planning a family). The service call:

“...okay. You and the party who hold the account need to go into a Verizon office and—”

“Ah. What if we can't go into the same office right now?”

She thinks for a moment, and her voice slows down. “I can send a form instead. And the other party can fill out that form, then mail it to you, and you can bring it into the office.”

“There's no way I can just do it myself?”

“They need the form with proof of identification.”

“I guess we'd better do that.”

“Can I confirm the address?” She reads it. The bathos of hearing the address that was going to be mine from a cheery cell service representative with a southern accent—

“Anything else?”

“That's all.” You sound nice....

Other things will pop up: the digital photos, a few faxes stored in the fax program, reservation requests and Web bookmarks. The physical things, like a map on the wall or the picture on the fridge, or the cache of sexual salmagundi in the box under the bed, are easier to segment from the rest of my life. The physical is bounded by time and place, but the digital is a huge pile of overlapping symbols and signals, unbounded. Splitting them up is hard.

The network, I hear, is infinite. Its redundant storage and blinking fiber lines allow data to live forever, piling up and interlinking, accreting into a global hive of buzzing knowledge. Hard drives are endless scrolls, and network effects are exponential. But I am not infinite, nor are all the arcs and nodes of our great World Wide reticulation truly permanent. Sometimes the address changes, the page goes missing, and not even Google has the archive.

So I shift the mail directory to a location less intimate, wrapping the past in hierarchical folders, clicking my way to clarity. I stare a minute at the speed dial button. There are not so many links as I thought, not so many possible connections: a lesson with a sting in its tail, in the age of the infinite.

.  .  .  .  .  

This piece is sponsored by Brenda Janish, an information architect who (1) has been very kind to Ftrain; (2) is: highly regarded by information architects the world round, including this one, for the quality of her thinking and her professional expertise; a member of many IA communities of interest; and an editor of the excellent Boxes and Arrows, and (3) looking for work.




Ftrain.com is the website of Paul Ford and his pseudonyms. It is showing its age. I'm rewriting the code but it's taking some time.


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About the author: I've been running this website from 1997. For a living I write stories and essays, program computers, edit things, and help people launch online publications. (LinkedIn). I wrote a novel. I was an editor at Harper's Magazine for five years; then I was a Contributing Editor; now I am a free agent. I was also on NPR's All Things Considered for a while. I still write for The Morning News, and some other places.

If you have any questions for me, I am very accessible by email. You can email me at ford@ftrain.com and ask me things and I will try to answer. Especially if you want to clarify something or write something critical. I am glad to clarify things so that you can disagree more effectively.


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© 1974-2011 Paul Ford


@20, by Paul Ford. Not any kind of eulogy, thanks. And no header image, either. (October 15)

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Why I Am Leaving the People of the Red Valley. (April 7)

Welcome to the Company. (September 21)

“Facebook and the Epiphanator: An End to Endings?”. Forgot to tell you about this. (July 20)

“The Age of Mechanical Reproduction”. An essay for TheMorningNews.org. (July 11)

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