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Outburst 19: Liberating the Text: Infinite Space in a Nut-Shell

“O God, I could be bounded in a nut-shell and count myself a king of infinite space, were it not that I have bad dreams.”
– Shakespeare, Hamlet

I manage the training department for a large company. The position has a few perks as well as challenges, all packaged in a neat Faustian pact. That is, the perks are in no stretch of the imagination compensatory to the ultimate payment, but that’s the way it is with Faustian pacts. On the perks side, I have a nice office, a decent salary, and a great team. On the challenge side, I have outrageous hours, multiple committee/task force/project team assignments, and a computer welded to my forehead.

Ah, my computer. In my company, everyone has a laptop. They are standard issue IBM Thinkpad T23’s with Pentium IV processors and all sorts of RAM and horsepower and turbo charged overhead cams. We have a Common Operating Environment (COE)—that is, all our employees all over the world are linked into the same network with the same basic equipment. Uniform we are. My laptop travels everywhere with me. When at work, I snap it into a docking station linked to all sorts of wonderful peripherals. When at home I snap it into another docking station linked to all sorts of wonderful peripherals. When I travel . . . you guessed it.

Okay, I lied. My computer isn’t welded to my forehead, and I don’t take it absolutely everywhere—as light as it is, it’s still cumbersome. I don’t take it into meetings, for instance. But I need it in meetings.

The first day in my new position, my administrative assistant, Marlene, informed me that she had delegation of authority over my calendar (online in our COE). She was smiling. Not long thereafter I realized my wonderful administrative assistant was none other than Lilith, the She-devil of Calendar of Hell. Okay, I’m being unfair. I am less a victim of the evil whims of a malign admin than I am of my own work demands. It didn’t take me long to understand, however, that I needed my computer everywhere. Whether it was Marlene accepting all sorts of meetings on my behalf, or half of the company suddenly deciding they would die unless I provided them a critical piece of information via email, I needed information and tools at my disposal in oddest of places and the strangest of times.

Clearly, I had to upgrade my beloved Franklin planner to something much more technologically advanced. I needed something that would hold my calendar, excel and word documents, address book, calculator, emails, to do lists-something with the speed of my computer, the convenience of my Franklin, and the weight and size of, I don’t know, my hand.

About a month into my position, one of my staff members stormed into my office and demanded that I allow her to expense out a Palm Pilot. She simply couldn’t function effectively without one. Didn’t I know she couldn’t cart her laptop around absolutely everywhere? Didn’t I know what it cost to refill a Franklin? Didn’t I know that the new Palm m505s just hit the market, and we could probably get a good deal if we acted fast and bought in bulk? So I did what any sensible manager would do: I said, “No.” Then, two days later, I equipped my department and myself with Palm Pilots. Finally, like Hamlet, “I could be bounded in a nut-shell [the confines of my work] and count myself a king of infinite space [information and technology in package the size of my hand].”

Infinite Space

Two weeks later I threw out the pages of my Franklin (and all volumes of yearly binders I had obsessively stored), gave the black leather portfolio to my daughter, and programmed my Palm m505 for the first time. Now, half a year since the joyful union, I sync my Palm to my laptop several times a day. At an instant’s notice, I can pull up my calendar and find out where Marlene has committed me to be. At a touch of a mere button I can read dire emails relating to impossibly urgent matters, I can calculate equations English majors have nightmares about, I can play fascinating games during droll meetings, and, during rare moments of respite, I can even read books. My Franklin never did all this. I have tasks lists, address books, expense logs, note pads, and memo pads. I can beam information from my Palm to someone else’s. Most of the games I have were actually beamed to me during church from a friend’s cell phone! I can read in the dark, I can write by graffiti or keypad. But, alas, I have bad dreams.

Bad Dreams

I need my Palm to do more. And the Palm company knows it, too. My black leather Palm case (yes, I have a thing for black leather) comes with a little paper memo pad tucked neatly in the inside cover. I draw pictures on it, work out matrices and diagrams. I write quick notes in freehand because I’ll be damned if I’m going to learn graffiti or cramp my hand trying to write a memo longer than six words on that tiny pen-punch keyboard. I need to see the attachments that came with the emails; I need to see all my emails in all my archives. Can I view more than a corner of an excel spreadsheet? Can I please have all my computer applications?

As my Franklin couldn’t keep up with the demands of my work, neither can my Palm. I’m trying to figure out which drives the other. Do I need more technology to manage my work, or is my work unmanageable because of technology?

Jay Bolter, in Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing, suggests that technological advancements will create a brave new world of “writing space” that will liberate the text and, in the process, enable the self-actualization of both the writer and the reader. I fear that we have all entered a Faustian pact—the promises of technology for the burdens it reaps. I hate to mix metaphors and I hate to mix literary figures, but we are also like Hamlet: gone mad in the realization that our world is no longer innocent and we are held tight in its embrace.

Author: Gary Hernandez works for BP in their US Convenience Retail Business Unit. He is also an adjunct English instructor at Citrus College in Glendora, CA. He has an MA in English literature from George Mason University and is working on an MS in technical writing through Utah State University. Gary resides in Alta Loma, CA.

Published inOutbursts
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