Revenge of the Gizmo

Photograph Source: Victoria Reay – CC BY 2.0

For decades now I’ve written columns for local papers. Like Wendell Berry (and here’s where the comparison ends) the scribbling was typically on a yellow pad with the tweaking shown though cross-outs, arrows pointing this way and that, and other tells declaring a work-in-progress.

Almost 20 years ago however a local editor offered me a weekly column. “How many words?” I asked.

“About a thousand,” he said. But…. he continued, a computer would be preferred for composition and delivery. I resisted, and for some time continued the pen/paper method and hand-delivered the typed efforts to his office. The paper then delegated one of the staffers to enter the piece into the system, retyping the thing into the paper’s computer matrix.

But sometimes there were typos or things left out. That annoyed me enough that I finally got a (very) used Mac and learned how to type and finagle just enough to file stuff using the supposedly more efficient/ “green(?)” technology based on strip-mined coal, nuclear reactors, scarce earth metals, and the endorphin-enthrallment of the tele-screen.

So I got-with-the-program. But then there was the time when the gizmo ate my column. (Just like today.)

Back then, a friend and I had ventured to Maine’s  agricultural trade show. It’s still an annual ritual; walking among the increasingly aged ruralists, slower (and gimpier) each year, between the aisles of tractors, 3 point hitch winches, hydraulic attachments, and various vendor tables.

On our way back there was a stop to pick up some feed-grain. Dark was coming fast as we turned off the interstate and down a country road to a failed dairy farm. We passed a derelict silo and a weathered 50s Farmall, finally arriving at an old barn where the grain had been left for loading. Cargo aboard we turned back toward the lights of “northern Massachusetts”/ southern Maine.

That twilight excursion brought to mind the literary themes around what used to be called “mutability”—— entropic withering and “the fleeting lives of human beings.” So I wrote about it and the piece seemed to work, but when I attempted to paste it into an email it disappeared. In flailing  distress, I tried to retrieve the draft but no luck. I called the editor as deadline approached. He assured me that the thing wasn’t REALLY gone—— just bring the machine over and he’d retrieve it. I did. He couldn’t.

Returning home I attempted a re-write with deadline bearing down, but the fickle muse was on-break. It was disappointing.

Lost in translation? Live by the sword, die by the same?

Being more diligent since then, fewer files have been mistakenly lost/deleted, but about 400 words in, today’s draft went missing, apparently due to an errant key stroke. For someone as unschooled in the mysteries of the digital nether-world as your humble narrator, such episodes bring on a sense of powerlessness usually only experienced at city council meetings, or in the voting booth.

Yes, dear reader, we have had writing and agriculture for thousands of years—— computers for mere decades now. While a GPS-guided tractor can conceivably plant a straighter row than a flesh-and-blood farmer, the emotional bond of people to a place is something that AI and pulsing diodes cannot replace. We are told that self-driving cars will be a boon to the species and worth the road-kill along the way. Writers can be replaced by Artificial Intelligence-enabled chatbots we’re told. Who needs pesky union writers when a bot can write the lead-in to Smack-Down installments, the celebrity-crime distraction, or the latest (good vs. evil) war-of-opportunity fable.

So meetings and experience become virtual, newspapers disappear and abbreviated tweets proliferate as life expectancy declines here, the homeless sick and despairing wander our streets, and human society appears utterly unable to face the existential crisis of a relentlessly heating planet (or frankly any other serious issue).

In a country all gizmo-ed up, any change to business-as-usual seems quite unlikely, though those given to magical thinking or “hopium” may tell you otherwise.

June 16th the local paper’s “Business section”  carried a few words from Antonio Guterres, UN Secretary General, one not given to magical thinking. The AP report noted that his “blunt attack” on the fossil fuel industry “reflects growing frustrations at the industry’s recent profit bonanza, despite scientists’ warnings that burning fossil fuels will push the world far beyond a safe climate threshold.” He called their product “incompatible with human survival,” and argued that, “Trading away the future for thirty pieces of silver is immoral.”

Well….. yeah.

Sharing Guterres’ remarks was the original point of the column that my gizmo ate. So there it is.  Should the reader regret my lack of table-setting for Guterres’ refreshing candor, the problem might be partly gizmodal malfunction and my tech-ineptitude.


Richard Rhames is a dirt-farmer in Biddeford, Maine (just north of the Kennebunkport town line). He can be reached at: