May 2014 - Technopeasantry

by Justice William W. Bedsworth

I am a technopeasant.

Like the medieval serfs who gazed up at the castle with no real conception of what life was like for the lord of the manor and his confederates, I stand dumbfounded and agape before the miraculous technological edifice that is 21st century electronica. I meekly accept the fact that the people inside the castle are somehow better, more deserving than I, and resign myself to begging the occasional handout from the Lords of Internet Technology.

After all, these people are so high above us peons, they might as well be in a cloud. What’s that? They are in a cloud? There is something called “cloud technology”? Verily, the work of wizards, Sire.

Okay, we’ve beaten that metaphor to a rather torturous death, so let’s get to the point here. The point is the 21st century is kicking my ass.

I was pretty good at the 20th century. I could fix a carburetor,1 connect new speakers to my stereo, decide between the normal and perma press settings on my dryer. I even allowed myself to be dragged—kicking and screaming—into the wonders of word processing.2 

But then the century turned, and I found out technology is like Algebra II: Once you fall behind the rest of the class, you are unlikely to catch up.

And I fell way behind.

I’ve learned new skills, but they’re limited. I can find cases on the Internet, but then I have to go print them up to read them.3 I’m not sure what it is, but trying to absorb content by scrolling down a screen doesn’t work for me. If God had meant for me to learn by scrolling, She would have installed my eyes on slot machine reels.

And if She had meant for me to indulge in social media, She would have made me ... well ... social.

I mean, don’t get me wrong. I like people in general just fine. Except Congress.

And I like my friends even more fine.4 But I don’t need to be in constant contact with them.

Even Facebook is TMI for me. Except insofar as it informs me what my children are doing. Near as I can determine, that’s the only valid purpose for having a Facebook account: Keeping up with your kids.

What’s the classic complaint of parents going back to Abraham? “He never calls! I go after him once—just once—with a knife and all of a sudden it’s like he’s got no father! Hey, I was only following orders!”

Okay, I’m not sure that was Abraham’s complaint. I went to a Catholic high school; finding us reading the Bible would have freaked them out more than finding us reading Playboy.

But it’s been the lament of generations of pre-Facebook parents. The kids never call, they never write. They go off to college and it’s like they sailed off the edge of the earth.

But now, with Facebook, all you gotta do is indulge in a little electronic voyeurism and suddenly you get updates ... you get aspirations ... you get pictures ... you get videos, for crying out loud. I watched my grandkids skiing last winter. From my den.

You know all those long talks you meant to have with your children? Now you can go online and see them having those long talks with their friends. Too far away for the grandchild’s birthday party? No problem: 164 photos on Facebook. You get 26 pictures of the kid next door, scores of your grandchild. All you gotta do is deal with feeling a little like a Peeping Tom.

So there’s a use for Facebook. A use I understand.

Twitter, on the other hand, is a mystery of dogmatic proportion for me. It’s like the Trinity—so completely beyond my ability to reason through that I either have to accept it on faith or Google “Religion non-Trinitarian” on the Inter Tubes.5

I not only can’t figure out how to tweet, I can’t figure out why. I have friends who tweet things like “Eating a sandwich with Beds at Gazorninplat’s.” Okay, it’s only one friend, but he insists there are others just like him. And that if I were “on Twitter”6 I could learn things like who was eating with Justin Timberlake or LeBron James.

This is news that strikes the same chord in me as would news that there was a club of ax-murderers or puppy-bakers I could join. Why I would want to have my phone sprinkled with pixie dust or whatever it is you do to get “on Twitter” is completely beyond me.

And as for Snapchat and Pinterest and Instagram and that there, well, now you’re just urging calculus and trigonometry on the kid who went to the principal and begged his way out of Algebra II on the ground he really needed to take Business Law junior year.7 And had fallen way behind in Algebra II.

Don’t get me wrong. Some of this stuff is wondrous, whether I understand it or not. Arthur C. Clarke famously observed that we have reached that point in man’s development where any reasonably advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Well, I don’t know if the rest of you have reached that point, but I sure have.

But that doesn’t mean I can’t take advantage of it. I love magic. When the guy makes the quarter jump out of my left fist and inexplicably appear in my right, I applaud.8 When he shows me that the rope I’ve watched him cut into six pieces is still whole, I shake my head in wonder. I love that stuff.

And that’s the way I deal with electronic briefs and macros and hyperlinks and the like. I have no idea why I can hit F4 and get the citation for Miranda. But when it happens, I beam like a kid with a new bike.

I have no idea how clicking on black type gets me nothing but clicking on blue type allows me to read the case in question right at my desk. But I feel like kissing the inventor of hyperlinks every time it does.

Of course, even an electronic chain is only as strong as its weakest link. So I always have to print up the electronic brief so I can scribble notes on it. But I’m part of a transitional generation.9 The next batch of appellate justices will scroll right through and scoff at my difficulties.

Imagine how many forests there will be on 22nd Century Earth!

And imagine how easy it will be for them to scoff with their smart phones. Forget “smart,” by the next century, they’ll be “erudite phones” ... “brilliant phones” ... “savant phones.”

It’s amazing. I try to get out of writ duty by calling in sick? They scan the petitions and email the danged things to me. I tell them I can’t look at them because I’m at the doctor’s office, they send them to me on my phone! We may not have conquered cancer, but we’re beating the hell out of laziness.

Smart phone, my left elbow! If it were really smart, it would not be forcing me to read writ petitions on a teeny-tiny screen only slightly larger than Dick Tracy’s wrist-radio. If it were really smart, it would be helping me find a way out of reading these cases instead of swallowing up excuses like they were electronic goldfish crackers. If it were really smart, it would realize that I have only to drop it in the toilet and its email-enabled, text-enabled, camera-enabled, weather-predicting, grandkids-skiing-video-providing, recreational-reading-equipped, smarter-than-its-owner self would turn into something even us technopeasants know how to use.

A brick.

(1) Or, more likely, reduce it to a worthless pile of scrap that removed any doubt about whether I had to buy a new one.
(2) When I sat on assignment at the Court of Appeal in 1994, I told them I needed to write longhand, I needed the feel of the pen in my hand. Apparently I was laboring under the delusion I was Faulkner. They—and Word—straightened me out pretty quickly.
(3) And isn’t that a bit of a wonder in and of itself, at least for those of us who still remember the smell of the mimeograph machine.
(4) My undergraduate major was English.
Obviously, time well spent.
(5) Okay, I’m a little more clued in than Senator Ted Stevens was when he described the Internet as a “series of tubes,” but not much. I’m sure if I were closer to Congress, my IQ would be similarly affected, so I’m at least smart enough to stay out of the Beltway.
(6) A usage that sounds to me suspiciously like “on heroin” or “on speed.”
(7) Thus enabling me to stay eligible for the baseball team.
(8) The quarter, of course, falls to the floor, making me feel even more foolish.
(9) “Transitional generation” is a term your welcome packet from the AARP introduces you to.

William W. Bedsworth is an Associate Justice of the California Court of Appeal. He writes this column to get it out of his system. He can be contacted at william.bedsworth@jud.ca.gov.