Serenity among glitches

August 09, 1999|By David Plotnikoff | David Plotnikoff,Knight Ridder / Tribune

Although I can't put a date on when the change occurred, I have the unmistakable sense that a corner has been turned in my so-called Net.life. I'm not the wired warrior I was just a few months ago.

Consider this: Three weeks back, for no discernible reason, my America Online client software -- 3.0 for Macintosh -- suddenly stopped downloading e-mail attachments. It would balk on the first attempt and crash on the second. If I were my old self, I would have dropped everything and conclusively dealt with this problem the first time it occurred. I would have either reinstalled the entire package from a backup disk or downloaded and installed the more recent AOL 4.0. Instead (parents, this may be a good time to have the kids leave the room), I chose to do nothing.

As I've said before, I believe the essence of true geekitude is, 1. a burning desire to know how things work, and 2. a compulsion to tinker and tweak said things until they work even better. I have first-hand experience with this value set. There was a time when I would just not leave well enough alone on that Mac. I would rather reinstall the entire system folder piece by piece than live with an irritation for even a single day. Now, you might say I'm finding the natural limits to my geekitude.

The e-mail with attachments can be forwarded to another account. That nagging QuickTime Pro upgrade notice I keep meaning to disable? It's just as easy to click that "later" button one more time and go on. What about the RealAudio clips that can't find the RealPlayer application? Even though I set the RealPlayer as the designated application a dozen times, I can manually select it again without letting it ruin my day.

Part of my job is to be a sort of Net-borne Heloise for the hard-drive set, a source of tips for the digitally challenged. What I've found as I dispense advice is that almost every user has some secret shame, some little mess that just showed up one day and moved in for good.

When I look over someone else's home machine, I see things that would set the veins on my neck to throbbing. (Four times in recent months I've encountered Mac users who have given up hope that their machines will ever remember that the printer port is used by the printer.) And yet somehow they've made their peace with the situation.

There is, of course, a real-world antecedent to consider here. Seven years ago, the woman who shares my virtual and nonvirtual domains got tired of baking in a kitchen the size of a walk-in closet. Thus, we purchased the dear old house we live in today.

Before the first box had been unpacked, I had a comprehensive two-page, single-spaced list of every little flaw in our new home.

I had every intention of systematically checking off every problem, right down to the sticking doors and the driveway cracks.

Well, seven years and approximately 175 trips to the hardware store later, some of those items are still on the list.

The urgent stuff got addressed. As for the non-urgent stuff, I found it becomes easier to overlook them as time rolls on. Will I ever replace that wobbly mailbox post? Maybe. But what's the point in kidding myself that I intend to do that anytime soon?

Now, I'm coming to grips with the prospect of a digital world that is also a few clicks short of perfection. It seems the trick to having a happy life in such a world is to not be binary.

There are levels of performance that fall somewhere between flawless operation and non-operation. There are levels of personal engagement somewhere between unrepentant sloth and zero-fault-tolerance. There is, in other words, a middle ground -- a philosophical space that had always eluded me.

You could strive to achieve an ISO 9001-certified domestic life, one in which every wrong is set right. And despite your best efforts, I think you'd find that things continue to go awry online and off. (That's why we have comforts such as backup drives and auto insurance, no?)

You could spend every weekend of your life fixing things that are not absolutely necessary. And you would miss the things that absolutely are -- planting a vegetable garden; walking in the woods; lying on a sunny deck late on a Sunday afternoon, drinking wine and singing along with Van Morrison on the radio.

Then again, maybe this whole blithe spirit trip is just a phase I'm going through. It's hard to say.

Perhaps a dozen weekends in the garden will make everything clear.

Pub Date: 08/09/99

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