Lately I’ve had this hunted feeling, that digital forces increasingly want things from us that we are unwilling to give. I used to be blithe about it and gave myself up to pestering technology, but now I’m suspicious.
I have an HP printer and for a decade bought the most precious and overpriced material on the planet, printer ink, worth more than lithium, coltan and cobalt. At one point, HP mysteriously began to thank me for buying its ink and rewarded me with free video games I did not play.
It was worried because customers had a new option: buy cut-price no-name ink for HP printers that were sold cheaply in order to make a fortune on HP ink. You thought your printer was a first date; you had married an extortionist.
Take journalist Charlie Warzel who bought an HP printer and had inattentively subscribed to Instant Ink, its auto-refill program. When his credit card expires, he writes, it stops paying for the mandated ink, so HP shuts down his printer remotely. He says his debt to Instant Ink grew.
In other words, HP still owns the printer he bought. He was effectively becoming an indentured servant of HP. My printer is old; when it breaks and I buy a new one, must I enter servitude as well? If I use homemade ink, will it refuse to print?
As Warzel pointed out, Tesla does this too with updates altering the car you bought. Is Tesla owner Elon Musk a benevolent? Are hyenas reasonable? Are vultures picky eaters? Musk can stop that car cold, as he wishes.
Jeff Bezos was born on Amazon by selling books, not because they were worthy but because they were easily stocked, packaged and shipped. Actual bookstores disappeared.
Sadly, Bezos discovered pleasure late in life. He has just built a $681-million yacht (it has sails!) to carry Lauren Sanchez and the weight of her engagement ring, while a smaller yacht (it has engines!) trails behind with toys like helicopters, ATVs, and even smaller boats. He’s a happy man.
Andy Jassy now runs Amazon. Not a detail man like Bezos, I note. He has stopped selling most books and has just closed the Book Depository with its massive warehouses of older stock.
Amazon changed its deal. Books were my heroin; I’m getting dopesick. We buy digital books, but the truth is we never truly own them. They can be withdrawn, even edited in the same way that older books are being reissued minus the “offensive” bits.
The next weirdness: companies want to get to know customers in voyeuristic ways. Cookies aren’t harmless; they survey me online and send me ads that seem increasingly like harassment — camo codpieces, men’s assless underwear — rather than personalized. Is it incompetence? Prurience?
A Toronto museum sent me a long questionnaire, checking if I was worth cultivating for donations. It asked my household income (I said “billowing” to keep them guessing), race (“YSL skin shade Warm Sand”) and sexual orientation (“a guy named Steve”). I was furious.
They’re a Canadian museum run by an American and draped with ridiculous aluminum spikes resembling Princess Beatrice’s beige fallopian wedding hat. They’re stalking me. We have a long-term relationship I can’t escape, like the one I have with Samsung and its rickety washers/dryers and demented fridges.
It’s the same with push notifications. I only want them from my bank, but they fly into my eyes like bugs at a barbecue.
Same with my phone. I am as hooked on that thing as any addict manically pressing buttons at a slot machine, rats seeking food. The only consolation with that slag heap of Twitter is that I never paid for it. I let it turn my brain into crumbling cork for free.
I liked the digital world which is like any other area of life in that its drawbacks only appear late, often too late to avoid or discard. I can listen to any piece of music on Spotify, but with full knowledge it leaves musicians impoverished, nearing extinction.
Lately, I’ve been wondering about my fluttering connectivity and roving blackouts. Did you know that a geomagnetic pole reversal (the planet’s magnetic fields flip) could instantly destroy our electrical infrastructure?
People talk about technology, but they forget about electricity on which modernity is based. Pole reversals occur every half-million years and we are quite overdue.
My, this column has traveled far from its original “The Mystery of the HP Printer,” but our central theme remains: technology has us in a chokehold and it’s getting tighter. I sit at home brooding, staring at the printer which has become HAL in “2001: A Space Odyssey,” an overseer, with moods.
Someone somewhere is working on flipping that magnetic field. Electricity is magic juice. Will we run out?
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