I can't say when this problem began, but I first realized the dimensions of it as I was reading a fax printout one afternoon a few years back. I quickly read through it, scanning from paragraph to paragraph, reached the end of the first page . . . and, so help me God, I tapped the "page down" key on the computer.
The fax stubbornly refused to advance to its second page, forcing me to flip forward manually--although not before looking around sheepishly to see if anybody had seen this.
I hoped this was a one-time slip-up. But the initial awareness that I had this condition has led me to find further symptoms. The phone, for instance, provides no end of amusement. I've caught myself trying to dial a phone number with my computer's keyboard (first I realize this won't work, then I get annoyed at the inefficiency of having two numeric keypads on one desk). And at the end of being talked at for 10 minutes by an overenthusiastic caller, I will sometimes stab the "star" and "3" keys on the phone as if I were deleting a voice-mail message.
Away from the office, I've found myself comparing particularly dull conversations with those awful role-playing computer games, in which you select what reply to give to an animated talking head. (Sign of a dull chat: When I mentally click on the "So, what do you do?" question.)
The digital world has even changed how I write. Consider the letter G. For the better part of two decades, I had written it as a simple sort of swoosh-plus-crossbar--
a C with a sharp left-hand turn at the 3 o'clock position. But a few months of testing an Apple Newton personal digital assistant forced me to change; its handwriting recognition worked much better when I replaced that horizontal bar with an arrow pointing northeast.
So out went decades of ingrained practice and a little bit of my paper persona. The Newton was FedExed back to Apple a few months later, but the new, improved G remained behind--until, that is, a Palm handheld organizer showed up for me to review.
This, at least, was upfront about wanting me to change my handwriting; the only sort of text input it recognizes on its own is a simplified alphabet called Graffiti, in which nearly ever character has been boiled down so it can be written without your having to lift the stylus from the Pilot's screen.
Graffiti wanted me to sketch the letter G not with an arrow, but a back-and-forth slash at that 3 o'clock spot. Once again, I complied. Although I've yet to find myself writing in Graffiti on paper (a not infrequent lament in Palm users' discussions), the new G has seeped into my paper writing--along with a Graffiti-accented 9 and V (for some reason, the software recognizes that character better when you write it from right to left).
Thanks in part to all this machine-induced handwriting distortion, my own handwriting may be easier for a machine to read--when I'm actually working to stay legible--than for other humans to decipher. But who cares? I can type much faster than I can write anyway.
Any my language is hopelessly infested with computing terms: If I have too much to do at the office, I'm not going to devote any "processor cycles" to non "mission-critical" problems until my own "bandwidth" increases.
Among certain circles of computer users, this sort of strangeness is cause for a certain amount of perverse pride. There's always some new "you know you're a geek when . . ." mailing waiting to land in one's inbox, ready to provoke nervous laughter.
While writing this, I e-mailed the editors of a handful of tech-oriented Web sites, hoping for some confirmation that I'm not a complete loon--or at least to hear of some story more embarrassing than my fax-reading incident. Adam Engst, who has run the TidBits newsletter and Web site since 1990, described his experience on a flight home to Seattle a few years ago, watching the TV screen in the cabin track the flight's path. "I was suddenly hit with this feeling that we were downloading, that it was just like watching the progress bar in an FTP program or Web browser as a file downloaded or page loaded," he wrote in an e-mail. "I suffered a moment of cognitive disconnect when I felt the wheels touch down while the altitude indicator was still at 60 feet," he continued. "Of course, SeaTac Airport isn't on the water . . . but my mind couldn't accept for a moment that we'd landed since the altitude hadn't gone to zero."
So there! I'm not a total geek! Or, no more of one than other people in the business. I suppose that will have to do. Engst's next sentence reminded me of why I have been willing to put up with this much absurdity and machine-induced changes in human behavior: Every now and then, these malfunctioning, cranky, bug-ridden machines actually work with you, not against you. Suddenly you shift into the zone, the interface melts away and words and commands fly into the screen almost faster than you can type. In this context, controlling pieces of paper with the keyboard seems perfectly natural and logical. It's a good feeling--while it lasts (as I finished typing the previous sentence, a network error blew this document off my screen for no apparent reason).
Engst compared this experience of being in a state of flow to a kind of dance: "The motions are precise, perfectly executed, and beautiful in the way that classical dance can be, but I'm performing in conjunction with this inanimate hunk of metal and plastic and silicon," he wrote. In other words, the handwriting's on the Web: "Neither of us can do it alone, and perhaps that's the lesson in all of these stories--we can no longer do certain things alone, for better or worse."
Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro at firstname.lastname@example.org.