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The Bastard Art of Thinking like a Machine

When confused by technology, it might help — and cost less — to switch back to human-mode

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By David Benjamin

Returning to our Paris garret last month, I faced the unwelcome prospect of buying another new printer. Our latest model, an Epson 210-dash-something, had developed a habit of displaying an animated long dash, in which a shadow ping-ponged back and forth, above the message,: “Looking for printer.”

To “look,” my laptop — ten feet across the room — was summoning Wi-Fi from the astral plane of digital mystery. Were my Mac a person, I would simply say, “Look over there, stupid. By the window. There it is!”

Yes, Alexa, there are machines that respond to human speech. But not these.

After a half-hour of feckless ping-pong, the message changed to “Printer not found.” This came as no shock. Even when the Wi-Fi link was going great guns, that ten-foot transit tended to be a crap shoot.

Until, last December, no dice.

The irony is that I knew my Epson 210-etcetera could still print. But its failure to communicate wirelessly rendered it little more than an ugly white elephant. My wife, Hotlips, and I headed for our most reliable source for “devices,” a store called FNAC. While we were perusing printers in the $80-200 range, we lamented the capriciousness of the wireless technology that had become the industry standard for printers. I wondered out loud why I couldn’t do what I used to do: plug my Mac into the printer using a cord with a USB socket on each end.

I wondered on. Might these newfangled printers still have oldfangled sockets to facilitate the plodding pedestrianism of a wired connection? Probably not.

No, wait. “Look,” exclaimed Hotlips. There, before our very eyes, among the $80-200 display models were hooks hung with USB-A to USB-B cords, in lengths from one to ten meters, priced as cheaply as €11.

I turned to Hotlips and said, “What if…”

She understood. What if my non-doing Epson 210-yadayada has a USB-A hole tucked secretly into its tuchis? Could we turn it from wireless to “wired” and bypass the Wi-Fi gremlins who waft invisibly in the ether between my Mac and my printer?

Agreeing that it was worth an 11-euro gamble, we bought the cord. When got home, we turned the printer and found its A-hole.

After that, of course, the process of reviving my Epson 210-WTF was hardly falling off a log. But I knew I had the gadget in disorderly retreat when the ping-pong chyron shifted from its feeble “looking” mode to an air of confusion about the state of my data. Then, all I had to do — patiently — was run the standard gamut of digital obstruction. One-by-one and often two or three times, I relabeled the printer from an Epson210-Whatever to an identical Epson210-Whatever in my Preferences file, unplugged and replugged, rebooted the software and slogged through a Utilities menu that had me grooming heads, cleaning nozzles, installing a new yellow ink cartridge and — the coup de grace! — printing the test page.

My refractory Epson surrendered grudgingly. It first printed an illegible document with only every third line readable. But now, it was just pouting. The next document was an inkjet jewel. The mustang had been ridden and the cowboy was tall in the saddle, yippee-kiyaying and rolling a cigarette.

Thinking … like a machine
I am a reluctant technology adaptor. My Epson 210-whosis is a discontinued model. But my battle with it — and my victory — was a microcosm of the bastard art of thinking like a machine. It’s an adjustment similar to boot camp. Once off the bus at Parris Island, you cease to be a human being with self-determination and options. You are thrust irrevocably into a robotic regimen over which you have no power. It never changes. Any effort to alter or defy the system either sends you back to Square One to start all over, or gets you booted entirely out of the Marines.

The machine is a drill sergeant, incapable of sympathy, re-training the human mind into timid conformity to its changeless, unchangeable routine. 

The machine‚ whether a drill press or a supercomputer, is a drill sergeant, incapable of sympathy, re-training the human mind into timid conformity to its changeless, unchangeable routine. It offers no options or variations. It accommodates no shortcuts, nor can it conceive of one.

Herein lies the rub. One of the remarkable talents of the human mind is the perception and implementation of shortcuts. My reversion to the USB cord, thus banishing from my life the techno-tyranny of the Wi-Fi Tinkerbelle, was a minor but liberating shortcut. Virtually every technological advancement, from the invention of the wheel to the mobile phone, has been a human-devised shortcut that saves labor, shoe leather, time and inconvenience. Think about the difference between a wagon train crossing the West from Missouri to Oregon in several months or driving the same route on the Interstate in a couple of days at 70 mph, or flying there in three hours.

When a human contrives to use a machine, termed “smart” by its purveyors, the human has to suppress the impulse to find a shortcut, to reduce the steps and get there quicker. The “smart” machine can process vast amounts of data at a speed impossible for the human mind. A machine can even learn and remember a shortcut to completing a task difficult — or impossible — for most human beings. But it must learn that shortcut from a human teacher.

And to teach the machine the quicker route to Oregon, the human has to think like the machine, slogging through a step by tedious step process of unplugging and plugging, booting and rebooting, testing and slavishly obeying the machine’s robotic regimen, lest one errant keystroke aborts the lesson, erases the screen and sends its frustrated tutor suddenly back to Square One.

Easier is teaching Emily Dickinson to a seven-year-old.

David Benjamin, an author, essayist and veteran journalist, has been examining the human element in high technology for more than 20 years. His novels and non-fiction books, published by Last Kid Books, have won more than a dozen literary awards. Most recently, his coming-of-age novel, They Shot Kennedy, had won the 2021 Midwest Book award in the category of literary/contemporary/historical fiction.

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