January 22, 2017

None May Buy or Sell Without the Mark


On a daily, often hourly basis, I am reminded that I simply no longer belong in this world. I’m just not equipped for it, don’t like much of anything about it, but the world, in its own insidious way, keeps bullying me into adapting. And that “adapting” involves not only jettisoning adamantly held beliefs, but spending hundreds of dollars to buy crap I hate with a passion, crap deviously designed to be obsolete in six months (at which point I’ll need to buy more crap). All this simply in order to conform with what millions of stupid drooling assholes have been duped into believing is necessary. So now I am forced to maintain a stupid Facebook page where I can be contacted by cretins I hated forty years ago, and why Morgan and I went to the Apple store to buy an iPhone last week.

            I spend far too much time swinging between panic and despair. If I’m working on a piece for someone, I tend to panic until it’s finished and turned in. When it is, and if I have nothing immediately lined up to work on next, I fall into a deep despair which forces me to pay too much attention to the repetitive drudgery of the errands and chores that fill up too many hours of my day. It only grows worse when I realize I will likely never write another book, simply for lack of time. Then when another assignment appears, it’s back into panic mode.

            It’s when the panic and despair collide and coexist in my head that things get very bad. This generally happens when I find myself shoved into conforming to a schizoid century simply in order to continue functioning.

            Here’s how two people who for years have steadfastly refused to own a cell phone, and have expressed loud and open contempt for people who do, were finally forced to recognize there was no other option.

            Over the past few months the screen reader I’m dependent upon in order to work at all has been revealing its limitations, particularly when it comes to online research. With websites continuously being revamped and upgraded with inescapable videos and advertisements, it was becoming increasingly difficult to find the things I was looking for. Since Macs had always been known for their built-in accessibility features for cripples like myself, I dropped Apple a line and asked if newer versions of the VoiceOver screen reader might make my life a little easier. The one-line response I received suggested that I go to an Apple Store and play around with the latest version of an iPhone, since that’s where all their energies were being focused nowadays. I got the impression telling this kid I was still on a desktop was akin to telling him I was using a typewriter and would be taking an autogyro out of Idlewild in the morning.

            Well, I had no interest in looking at cell phones, and made it perfectly clear. Beyond my stubborn Luddism and staunch refusal to become another fucking zombie getting in everyone’s way, the simple fact was the latest phones were nothing but portable touch screens, the bane of my existence. Even if I wanted one of the damn things, it seemed pointless. But Morgan began researching what sorts of potentially useful features were built into these hypnotizing monstrosities, and we saw a lecture by a blind Japanese software designer who was developing all sorts of high-zoot adaptability crap for phones. What’s more, I talked with a blindo musician friend from Chicago who loudly sang the praises of the fucking things far and wide. To hear him tell it I would be completely independent again, able to find new addresses with ease, identify products in the store without having to ask a Mexican, and with the help of Siri, that computerized personal assistant, why, it would be as if I wasn’t blind at all.

            I made the mistake of mentioning this to Morgan. A few days later we were standing on the platform waiting for a Manhattan-bound train, and I was trying to work out the timing that would somehow leave me beneath it. I’d contacted the Apple store a few days earlier and had spoken with a guy named Fritz who didn’t sound like a Fritz at all. I’d been told he was the in-store accessibility specialist. He assured us he would be able to answer all our questions, show us the basic accessibility features for blindos, and get us all set up and running. He’d told me when he’d be around, so that’s who we were heading to meet.

            The Soho branch was crowded and humming when we walked in. Having no clue where to go or what to do, we simply wandered around a bit looking lost and confused until someone approached us and asked what the hell we wanted. We told him we were looking for Fritz, and he led us over to a display counter in the corner to wait. A few minutes later Fritz materialized. I reminded him that we’d spoken a couple of days earlier, and given that he clearly didn’t remember our conversation, I explained our predicament yet again.

            “Oh yeah,” he said. “There are all sorts of great apps and things like that for accessibility.” Then he started talking about podcasts and his neighborhood, and it became immediately apparent to both of us this in-house expert didn’t know a goddamn thing about accessibility features. This was only confirmed when he went and got another salesman who quite possibly knew even less than he did. Then he went away again, returning a few minutes later with a fey little man who actually did know how things worked, more or less. This pale, soft-spoken little elfin creature explained a few of the basics, most of which involved one, two, or three finger swipes, a skill at which I was not terribly adept. Still, the screen reader did seem to be working a bit better than the one I’d been using at home. I wasn’t fully convinced yet, but was trying to remain reasonable.

            Three hours later, frazzled and shell-shocked, we left the store with a little bag containing two new phones, wondering just what the fuck we’d gotten ourselves into.

            Over the course of the next several days we fiddled and faddled and tried to get accustomed to these unwanted alien visitors. Much of what was required to make them work seemed counterintuitive, engineered to be as irksome as possible.

            “Now I understand why everyone using these things has that expression on their face,” Morgan noted.

            In very short order that built-in personal assistant became snotty and quite practiced at telling me all the things she couldn’t do. She’d clearly been engineered in the image of assorted uppity cinematic computers like the Proteus IV, Colossus, and the HAL 9000. Why the hell would I want this thing in my house? Trying to use the touch screen was as pointless as expected. Even just trying to sign in to get the fucking thing operational took me half an hour of sweating and growling every time I turned it on. That above-mentioned panic and despair grew deeper. Morgan seemed to be getting a handle on things, but I was seeing less and less hope for something I never wanted in the first place. Even thinking back to what that musician in Chicago had told me, I realized much of what he was talking about was useful to people who still had some vision left, not people like me who could no longer see the screen at all.

            I was about ready to tell my wife there was no point to it, that the promises had all been as empty as they always were, that we’d dropped far too much money on a cruel sham, and I was going to return mine. I didn’t understand the language or the gestures or anything about them, and to be honest I didn’t really want to. I couldn’t imagine trying to maneuver down the street with a cane in one hand and this flat expensive fucker in the other, all the while trying to concentrate on the voice reading directions while at the same time listening for garbage trucks hurtling straight at me. No, I’d been right all those years and should’ve known as much.

            Then Morgan found an, um, “app” (still hate the lingo) which would clearly identify objects in great detail and by brand name when I pointed the phone at them. Damn thing actually worked, and it was free. For years we’d been talking about how useful a thing like that would be when I was trying to buy groceries, and here it was.

            So okay, maybe I’d give it a little more time. In the days that followed I began learning how to navigate around the screen with a bit more dexterity. Not a lot, but some. And I made a list of the things I was hoping to be able to do with it, just to see what was actually feasible. The dread was still there, the simmering hatred for the modern world, but it looks like I might well be on my way to becoming another one of the millions of oblivious, self-absorbed assholes who make this city such a miserable goddamn place by marching back and forth in front of the subway entrance like some goddamn miniature golf obstacle. But with everyone saying within the decade we won’t be able to buy groceries, ride the subway, or do much of anything else without one of these sinister geegaws, these snappy little Marks of the Beast, what the fuck choice was there? And why am I reminded of that tragic end to Don Quixote?


You can contact Jim Knipfel at this address:

With occasional exceptions Slackjaw generally appears weekly. For email notification of other Jim Knipfel publications (books, etc.) and events please join the Slackjaw email list here.