Technology is great when it works: Jerry Nelson

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum
Jerry Nelson

Mark Twain was an avid fan of technology. He was so enamored of new inventions that, by 1894, he had invested $300,000 (seven gazillion bucks in today’s dollars) in a mind-bogglingly complex contraption called the Paige Compositor.

The Paige Compositor was a bust and Twain lost his entire investment. He later wrote of its inventor, James Paige, “He could persuade a fish to come out and take a walk with him. When he is present I always believe him: I can't help it. When he is gone away all the belief evaporates. He is a most daring and majestic liar.”

I, too, am prone to embracing the latest technology. As such, I can feel Twain’s pain.

The arrival of the Computer Age was supposed to alleviate much of mankind’s suffering, especially the agony caused by our species’ tragic lack of a built-in spellchecker. Like the Paige Compositor, the principles behind computers look great on paper. And like the Paige Compositor, computers are so mind-numbingly complex that nobody can understand them.

Computers are wonderful until they don’t do what you want. When they fail to do what you think you have told them, it can lead to outbursts of profanity that would make a pirate’s parrot blush.

Take what happened to me recently. Some while ago, my employer decided to switch their email host from a local company to almighty and all-knowing Google. I was fine with this. The only problem was that the email program I was using refused to do the switch.

The program in question is called Windows Live Mail. It’s a reliable little program, albeit old enough to have been used by Fred Flintstone.

Microsoft quit supporting Windows Live Mail approximately at the end of the Ice Age. I didn’t care as long as the program kept on sending, receiving and storing my emails.

When I tried to sign up to use Google as an email host, it wouldn’t allow me to do so because it sensed that my Windows Live Mail account was still active. I was instructed to delete my old account and told that everything would automatically and smoothly migrate to Google.

As we know from nature documentaries, migrations often don’t go as planned. There are always a few wildebeest that didn’t put on their water wings before trying to cross a raging river, some male caribou who get lost because they refused to ask for directions.

In an effort to complete the transfer, I did as instructed and deleted my work Windows Live Mail account. I then signed up for the Google service, expecting everything to be there.

Nothing was there!

None of my past emails and none of my email addresses made the jump. They seem to have gotten lost somewhere in cyberspace. It was as if an entire skyful of migrating snow geese had simply evaporated into the blue.

“You fool!” you are thinking, “You should have backed up everything before you attempted to make the switch!”

But I had. Everything was backed up at three separate sites in the cloud. But it seems that if you delete it here, it’s also automatically deleted there.

Several agonizing hours were spent frantically trying to retrieve my old emails. I was attempting to do the level of computer-based stuff that’s beyond the ken of mere civilians. It’s like being told that you have to assemble an automatic transmission before you can drive a car.

I tried the system restore feature but no go. I called my local computer repair guy who said that my files were likely permanently gone. It’s bad news when the magician tells you that he’s out of tricks.

At one point during my increasingly desperate efforts, my computer screen filled with strange new icons, each a shortcut to an email. "Where the heck are my desktop icons?!" I asked. The number and volume of imprecations uttered could have stripped the rust off an old plow.

The shortcuts led to emails that were more than a decade old. I don’t want emails from ten years ago! I want my emails from ten hours ago! Heck, I’d be happy to recover emails from ten months ago.

I wasted an untoward amount of time and effort getting rid of the nuisance shortcuts. It’s a sign of how dire things had become that I danced a jig when my computer desktop looked normal once again.

This isn’t the first time – and probably not the last – that I’ve sacrificed too much time on the altar of high technology. As techno whiz Mr. Spock once said, "Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them."

Amen, brother.

If you'd like to contact Jerry Nelson to do some public speaking, or just to register your comments, you can email him at jjpcnels@itctel.com. His book, “Dear County Agent Guy,” is available at Workman.com and at booksellers everywhere.