Is the E-World Liberating Us Straight to a Gulag?

This is not what you think.  The above JPEG isn’t even hyperlinked, and you may not be able to read the title… so, no, I’m not trying to peddle a book.  But it seems to me that my month-long ordeal in struggling to create a 6 x 9 front cover illustrates a lot of disturbing aspects about life in the twenty-first century.

My formatting software for designing book covers was only about twenty years old… okay, just a bit older; and I admit that its very limited parameters should have forced me into a change much sooner.  But it was the old PC herself who finally kicked in the stall so much that I had to put her out to pasture.  A circuit breaker in our new house was being tripped by something in the nag’s guts (and the electrician tells me that these new “arc” breakers are very touchy).  So… okay, I decided to surrender and buy updated software.  How hard could it be?  Aren’t we going more “user-friendly” with each passing year?

I didn’t opt for the cheapest product, nor for the priciest: I always shoot for the middle.  This program had rave reviews.  I downloaded a “zip” file for $47.  The thing wouldn’t unpack.  The merchant advised me to disarm my MacBook’s firewalls.  No effect (they were already disabled).  I actually have a more recent MacBook—which should have presented greater problems with its enhanced “security”, I would think; but it was there that I realized the inadequacy of Adobe Acrobat for whirling its way through an unzipping task.

Upgrade Adobe Acrobat, perhaps?  No… though “free”, it only spares your bank account if you do nothing but poke around the download.  Once you attempt an operation…. so I instead downloaded another “free” app called The Unarchiver… which may or may not have cost $60 per year (still less than Acrobat’s $9.99 per month). Whatever the forgotten details of this transaction, I did indeed succeed at unzipping the original file.  As for getting into the component files exposed by the unzipping… no luck there.

At this point, I was already running well behind schedule.  I decided that it was time to shell out for the “industry standard”: Adobe Photoshop.  Bought a copy at Wally’s World for $89… which I couldn’t open on the old Mac because it lacked sufficient RAM, and which I couldn’t download from the Net onto my new Mac (without a disk port) because we have Hughesnet.  Maybe I’m being unfair to our service provider—maybe our extremely rural location presents a problem for satellites that my low-tech understanding fails to appreciate.  In any case, an afternoon and a full night of spinning labor—18 hours in all—produced no visible progress; so… another $20 for my local computer guy to download PS in his shop.  It took him 15 minutes.

Then I find out that I have in fact merely purchased Photoshop 2019 Elements—which does absolutely nothing that my old Mac’s standard software didn’t already do.  The promises plastered all over the package concerning the easy generation of calendars, photo albums, greeting cards, posters… lies, all lies.  Or true in the sense that the “free” Acrobat offer was true: i.e., I can access a free test drive of all Photoshop’s functions—but if I actually want to use them in my work, the cash register rings loudly.

So I carry the package back to Wal-Mart with receipt… but I’m told that Photoshop is copyrighted, which means (for some reason) that my money cannot be refunded.

As of this writing, I am unclear about whether or not my $47 paid out on the original “undownloadable download” will be refunded by the designer.  I remain hopeful.  She seemed like a genuinely caring human being in our multiple emails.  As (bad) luck would have it, she left for vacation shortly after my purchase.  May she return in high spirits!

Meanwhile, I still hadn’t gotten my literary train out of the yard, and the sidetracks were cluttered with delayed departures.  In desperation, I conceived the preposterous idea that perhaps I could build a cover using my ancient edition of MS Word.  I had plenty of photographs, but not the savvy required to choose among “text wrapping” commands effectively.  After much stumbling about which doesn’t deserve a detailed account, I managed to create a pretty good facsimile of what I’d always had in mind.  Now all I had to do was… was get from a “doc” file to a JPEG.  How in hell?

Again, to compress and zip up much misery, I discovered that I could save DOC to PDF and then, with the aid of yet another download, convert PDF to JPEG.  As a matter of fact, I’m pretty sure it was MultiPDFConverter and not Unarchiver that cost me another sixty bucks.  Guess I’ll find out on my next credit card bill if the App Store rang me up for the latter.

Now all I had to do was… rebuild my cover and re-save to PDF and then to JPEG, over and over and over, as I attempted to satisfy the Amazon self-publishing program’s voracious hunger for Dots Per Inch.  I never got close to 300, but I did nudge past 150.  (Certain online gurus claim that this passion for pixelation is misplaced—that clarity is achieved by different means.  Me?  I’m just trying to get the damn freight train on its way to Santa Fe.)

Now I’m holding my breath to see what the actual product looks like.  It won’t be laser-sharp—but then, nothing that my antediluvian program on the old PC designed was ever laser-sharp.  Whence this craving for precision so gimlet-fine that the human eye finds it nowhere in the living world?  I’m told that “covers sell books”.  Really?  I can’t think of a single book I ever purchased in my life because of its cover.  All the same… my cover’s not so very bad, is it?  After all, the bottom photo was taken by my grandfather in about 1917, and the book’s subject indeed draws constantly upon hazy reconstructions of how things were done (specifically, hitting a baseball) a century ago.  Isn’t a certain mistiness almost appropriate—almost aesthetic?

But the central points I would strain from this labyrinthine trek through the e-universe have nothing to do with picture quality.  For one thing, I would stress what a horribly complicated world all of our e-tech is creating around us.  Programs are designed to download to just this or that platform: if one setting is even a little bit amiss, then it’s a no-go.  Most of us haven’t the specialist savvy to identify and fix the problem in a timely manner.  As software becomes more sophisticated, snags grow more numerous—and more painful and costly to unravel.  Things are NOT getting more “user-friendly”.

One result, I think, is that we ourselves compensate for our loss of power by demanding less of the new reality emerging around us.  We tend to want only what our software allows us to want—our imagination extends no farther than the machine’s capacity to satisfy.  For why go courting trouble?  Why envision a design that you know will cause you much grief as soon as you sit yourself before a keyboard?

It’s going to be a lot easier for Artificial Intelligence to get smarter if, at the same time, we humans are defining “smart” downward to fit artificial parameters.

Yet far and away the most disturbing lesson I’ve learned over the past three miserable weeks is that online business has a “cutthroat” quality seldom seen in the storefront dealerships of my childhood.  I may appear very naive in making that confession; but I will continue to protest that Mr. Cox really did bring a confidence to buying new shoes that Amazon can’t replicate, and that Record City had an old fellow behind the counter who quickly learned—and remembered—your taste in music far better than any algorithm can do.  Small merchants of forty and fifty years ago relied upon the trust of their customers for repeat purchases.  They knew their patrons individually: transactions were completed a quattro occhi, as the Italians say—two eyes to two eyes.  It’s hard to lie to someone as you stare him in the face… and a person who acquires that slippery skill had better not expect the same someone to come back later for more lies.

Now, an operation like Adobe, or Hughesnet (I still don’t know what to make of Hughesnet’s molasses-transmitting satellite)… when does eye ever encounter eye in those marketplaces?  “Free!  Try it for free!  Just give us your credit card number; and if, at the end of the month, you a) don’t absolutely love our product, b) can remember that your trial is ending, and c) can find the right page to terminate your membership—if sorting through useless FACs for an hour or waiting for ‘the next available representative’ in Bangladesh who never answers is worth ten bucks a month to you—why, then, maybe you can get your credit card off our books.  Good hunting!”

I’m asking myself seriously now: is this part of why so many young people consider capitalism depraved and ruthless—because online transactions, that is, are the only kind they know?  The irony is that the companies most responsible for the ruthlessness are also, almost invariably, big donors to progressive candidates and causes.  Why wouldn’t they be, though: isn’t the irony merely superficial?  For a highly centralized government will assist them in making their “virtual storefront” the only one in town.  Corporatism.  Does capitalism not morph naturally into corporatism if we don’t set a watchdog over it?  And isn’t the Net an ideal mechanism for accelerating this unholy transition, even though it continues to be touted as a liberating force—an enfranchisement of the little guy’s voice?  Aren’t social-media titans like Facebook and Twitter showing us what a very wishful fantasy that vision of freedom was?

I don’t have answers, or even suggestions, at this point.  I have only an old man’s nostalgia for the days when you could mosey down Main Street America and find row after row of shops eager to serve you, cheerfully and honestly.  And now I have a string of slightly blurry book covers ready to depart the yard for wide-open spaces.

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