Dave Gustafson, 1997


      You sit down in front of your computer and flip the "on" switch, just like always. The machine starts buzzing and grinding and churning out unending meaningless numbers, just like always. But don’t be fooled… because today will be no normal day. Soon you start to hear a strange grinding noise that you’ve never heard before… this catches your attention - what’s going on ? The grinding gives way to a sickening chuncking sound, and a strange image pops into your head of tiny men inside your computer smashing your motherboard with sledgehammers! Well…this can’t be good - you start to worry. What’s wrong ?!? Strange letters and numbers dance on the screen in a morbid medley of digital death, and finally six simple words appear at the bottom - "Hard Drive Failure. Insert Boot Disk." [gasp] The epitaph of computing. Your heart sinks as you realize that, contrary to all the advice you received, you never made a boot disk -where’s your "Real Men Don’t Need Boot Disks" attitude now?! No matter how many times you hit the "Escape" key, the monitor still stares at you, unchanged, cold white letters in a vacant sea of black. As a last resort, you pray for divine help. Oh, Patron Saint of software, help me in my time of need !!! [Pause….] But Bill Gates never answers. You let your swimming head fall on the keyboard, knowing that your life as you know it is over.

      So what was wrong with that picture, besides the fact that it seemed suspiciously like an advertisement for a memory backup tape? The problem was that that particular person’s life actually was over because of a simple computer failure. You know those science fiction movies and books where someone’s personality can be downloaded into a computer ? Well, that’s pretty much what this poor guy has just done - and he lost everything. You see, over the last few years it seems that everyone has been struggling to transform themselves from a normal human being into the Modern Digital Being - the surfer of the net, the lord of e-mail, the BMOL (that’s Big Man On Line). And with this transition to the digital world, we’re beginning to lose touch with the real world. People no longer want to see what’s good, they only want to see what’s online. But let’s face it - the internet may not be all that we make it up to be. Sure, people are always talking about all the wonderful places you can go online, but where does Mr. Average, Joe Schmoe, go when he has the world at his fingertips? Well, nowhere. Or at least, someplace that’s almost as good as nowhere. Because while he could be educating and bettering himself at "Encyclopedia Britannica Online," he’s probably just letting his mind idle away at some place called - are you ready for this? - the Spam Poetry Page. At Encyclopedia Britannica, you can read Shakespeare. At the Spam Poetry page…well, why don’t you judge for yourself: 

"Shall I compare thee to a can of SPAM?
Thou art more pink and more gelatinous.
Much ill is said about this fine "SPiced hAM"
Yet never is it called keratinous.
Sometime too hard the arteries are made
And often is the heart's beating too dim,
And every glob of fat in time is laid
Upon the waist, for Jenny Craig to trim.
So long as men can breathe or eyes can see
So long will SPAM's blue cans bring joy to thee."

     Amusing? Sure. A worthy use of computer technology? That’s kind of a gray area. A substitute for rea life? I certainly hope not. So why are people so determined to measure their lives in bits and bytes these days? Try this: picture the world as one big 5-year old kid. That’s about how old most of our world leaders act in the first place, so it shouldn’t be too difficult. Anyway, we’re collectively impatient, immature, unable to resolve problems on our own - and here’s the point - we’re all suckers. So we, the big 5-year-old kid, are walking in the proverbial toystore of material wealth, and we see a box. We see a big, shiny box. Inside this box, of course, is the information revolution I’ve been talking about, but we don’t care about that, ohhh, no. Because we know right then and there that this is the thing to have. In fact, we’d better get it right now before we’re the last kid on the block to have one. So we bug our proverbial mother, which is our collective conscience, and make the purchase. Of course, once we have this new toy, we completely disregard all of our old toys (like family quality time and friends). Another interesting phenomenon is that even if the toy proves to be not all that we expected, even if it lets us down, we won’t abandon it. Humorist Dave Barry notes this attitude in his book, Dave Barry in Cyberspace, while discussing "chatting" on the Internet. "[One may claim that he can already chat - he chats with his friends.]," Dave says, "But on the Internet, which connects millions of people all over the entire globe, you can chat with total strangers, many of whom are boring and stupid!"  

     Even with a sales pitch like that, everything now seems to focus on the electronic world. Perhaps the most to-the-point example of this that I’ve found was on the Sunday comics page. Everyone who’s familiar with Johnny Hart’s "B.C." knows the father and son ant characters. In this strip, the son asks his father what love is. His father replies that love is an "emotion." The son ant walks away with a confused look on his little ant face, saying to himself, "Love is an electronic motion?" Hey, it might as well be, because everything else already is. For example, every major newspaper and newsmagazine now has a section devoted entirely to current events in the realm of the digital. One needs only to look here to find headlines not even imagined a decade ago. "13-year-old Boy Has Popular Web Site", "Mystery Hacker Breaks into Military Computers", "13-year-old Boy to Serve 25-year Sentence", and so on. Also, wherever one used to see phone numbers - on TV ads, magazine ads, posters, billboards, whatever - you’re now almost as likely to find web site and e-mail addresses. The movies "Toy Story", "Independence Day", and "Romeo and Juliet" all advertised their web sites at the end of every preview. Even when I searched the net for the word "Amish," I came up with an impressive nine thousand matches.

     So to be perfectly honest, electronics is a wonderful way to get things done. It serves as a whole new media for business and advertising, where cost is virtually nil. This proves true for nearly all walks of business, from the dull financial services and airline reservations we’ve all heard about to the rather spicy fare of online soap operas. You heard me: Cybersoaps! As if parents weren’t already complaining about inappropriate content online! But they seem to be doing well enough; after all, as a U.S. News and World Report article of October 21, 1996 reports, "A year’s worth of cybersoap episodes can be produced for the cost of a single prime-time TV episode." 

     True, computers are a wonderful thing, but we can’t let them consume us. We have to fight our desires to be able to make decisions and perform actions without consequence. For in the computer world, every mistake can be corrected with the "undo" option, every game restarted, every wrong turn turned right. In fact, it’s not only computers that try to eliminate consequence in our modern world. What do you think health foods are ? People want to enjoy food, but they don’t want to pay the price in calories. So they buy fat-free, salt-free, sugar-free, cholesterol-free, caffeine-free, low sodium, baked, not fried, diet snacks. What’s the result ? Well, they’re still pretty healthy, but they find themselves trying to force something called "Air Crisps" down their throats. I bet you can’t guess what the main ingredient is. Well I saw something once that put this all into perspective. It said that first there were video games - but they were unconvincing and superficial. Then there was virtual reality - but you only feel like you’re there. So now, the newest breakthrough in gaming technology - actual reality. For those of you who may have seen it as well, yes, it was a shoe commercial. And maybe I’m just a tool of the advertisers, but I think we should all give it a shot. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the letters of "Information Superhighway" can be rearranged to spell the phrase, "New Utopia ? Horrifying Sham." 

     You lift your head from the keyboard of your now-deceased best friend, and stare at its black monitor face, wondering what to do now? As you contemplate the feasibility of life after hard-drive-crash, a ray of light hits you in the face. You look up - the sun is shining through your basement window! You pull open the shades and see a beautiful day waiting for you outside. You smile to yourself as you put on your shoes, pick up your basketball and head out the door, and think that maybe, just maybe, by the time you get around to trying to fix that computer, it will have collected a nice, thick layer of dust.

Works Cited

1.)Barry, Dave: Dave Barry in Cyberspace, New York: Crown Publishing, 1996

2.)http://data.club.cc.cmu.edu/~tina/humor/infohwy.html, "Tina’s Humor Archives - Computers"

3.)Sanders, Drew W.: "The Spam Sonnet Page", http://www.naic.edu/~jcho/spam/sonnets.html

4.)Laude, Olivier: U.S. News and World Report, October 21 1996:"The Cybersoap World," pp.75

5.)Hart, Johnny: "B.C." [n.d.]

For those interested in performing this speech in competition, go ahead!  Info that may be required:  this speech was written and first performed in 1996, and is published in the Ohio High School Speech League's Winning Orations 1997.