Musician typing on laptop on top of keyboard

How to survive in a virtual world

In Insight and Experience, Places, Travel and Retreats by LivingNowLeave a Comment

One of the more irksome facets of the life of a professional musician is the amount of time you have to spend away from home. Of course, travel can rightly be regarded as the upside of the business – you get to visit new, and often exciting, places and you are paid to do it.

If you happen to be based in Australia overseas touring is an absolute necessity. Unlike Britain and the USA, this country simply does not have the population base to sustain a full-time concert performer, especially if his or her métier is classical music. A handful of the best known pop musicians may be able to confine themselves to native shores, but for a classical musician that horse will not run at all.

Consequently, we spend a large part of the year away from home, and when we return we are greeted with a mailbag that is about the size of Santa’s, come Christmas Eve.

And that is where this story begins, for the last thing you want in that mailbag is unasked-for irritations, such as one I received when I recently returned from a month-long tour of New Zealand.

It may surprise the reader to learn that our Kiwi neighbours are presently engaged in a frenzy of roadwork upgrades; new bridges, tunnels, urban freeways. And not one of them attracts so much as one cent in toll fees. They are all free. Here, in Sydney and Melbourne especially, there are so many tollways that they enwrap our two major cities like spider webs, a gossamer thread of corporate greed designed to snare the experienced and unwary driver alike. Furthermore, as locals know, the Melbourne system, and Sydney’s M7, are fully computerised, without even a coin slot bin to activate a barrier gate. This is a world where the E-Tag is king, and if you don’t have one, there is a window of just 48 hours in which to pay by credit card over the phone, using a voice-activated system.

I had to use this system on a short visit in March, and the reassuring voice informed me that my credit card had been debited $11.45 on my day of travel. On return from the New Zealand tour my mailbag contained evidence to the contrary, in the form of a final demand for an unpaid toll, this time elevated to $13.59, of which $1.59 was the toll, and $12 an administration fee. Fortunately, the same mailbag also contained my credit card statement, which showed that, sure enough, the toll had been paid, and on the exact day of travel.

This is just one example of how computers – designed to make life easier – can so often make it much more complicated. Here are two more related instances, the first from the same New Zealand tour. The public car parks in the resort town of Queenstown are also computerised. They accept coins and credit cards, but not mine, apparently. I tried to pay a $2 charge using a $2 coin. The machine spat it out, and repeated the exercise with two $1 coins, 4 x 50c, also the 20c and 10c coins. I pressed the ‘help’ button.

“I’m the security guard – you’ll have to contact the manager’s office.”

“The machine is outside the manager’s office, and there’s no-one there.”

“That’s because it’s a weekend. They only work Monday to Friday.”

Eventually I was forced to use a credit card, which of course incurred a foreign currency handling fee greater than the $2 parking charge I was paying.

Apparently, this happens a lot in New Zealand, where the computerised exit tickets also have a tendency to malfunction, resulting in the driver paying the fee, inserting the ticket, and nothing happening at the boom gate. There have been many recent instances of drivers simply smashing the barrier gates in order to get out – and incurring court cases resulting in fines of up to $1000 for ‘damage to public property’.

Half a world away, in Edmonton, Alberta, I was once again confronted by a computerised voice recognition system. This time the airline had managed to lose my luggage, and both concert performances and TV appearances were less than a day away.

“Please state your location, by city and state”, said the machine.

“Edmonton, Alberta.”

“Answering ‘yes’ or ‘no’, did you say ‘Rapid City, South Dakota?’

Now a North American computer may decide that I cannot speak English properly, but I would like to know how it could confuse a town and city starting with vowels, with ones beginning with consonants, and how it could translate a total of six syllables into eight! It took me more than four hours to locate a human being who could help to retrieve my luggage.

The whole point of these examples is to highlight the fact that in our zeal for computers, we all too often employ them where they are more an impediment than a help, the thinking behind this usually no more sophisticated than the desire of a company to substitute machines for people in a cost cutting exercise, placing profit at the top of a food chain which predictably places customer service at the bottom.

Before I leave the world of travel, here is one more instance of the same thing. Qantas is phasing out manned check-in desks at domestic air terminals. Sydney is already person-free; you have to use a computerised self-check (the first two times I did so I boarded the plane and found the machine had allocated me a seat which was already taken!) Imagine the problems this must cause to a non-English speaking visitor, trying to get a seat allocation from one city to another, and not understanding the instructions on the screen. And where is the employee who can help you out? Usually nowhere to be seen. Fortunately, passengers are themselves human, and there will always be someone – perhaps the person behind you, wanting to use the same machine – who can play the role of knight in shining armour. But that’s not really the point, is it?

Beyond these inconveniences, matters become more serious when we consider the very real dangers of cellular phone communication, and it must be said that the problem here is not so much computers, but the sheer irresponsibility of people who use them. A recent US survey has revealed that as many as 50% of car accidents are now caused by people making mobile phone calls while driving. Here in Australia it is now illegal to use hand-held devices in cars, and California, Utah and several other US states are going further and imposing bans on hands-free devices, simply because these same machines can also be used to text, and it is impossible to text other than manually.

We can only marvel at the idiocy of people who would try to send a text message while in control of a car – would we write a letter in the same situation? Yet people do this, and I can only come to the conclusion that either (a) these people are so busy, so popular and so much in demand that they are compelled to communicate constantly, instantly, at any time of the day and in any situation, regardless of risk, or (b) their lives are so insignificant that the mobile phone is a kind of lifeline, an electronic umbilicus to which they have become inextricably attached as a means of justifying their own existence.

I shall return to this psychological aspect in a moment, but before doing so, let us consider the other in-car computer aid, yet another device that started life as a toy and is now viewed as indispensable. The GPS Sat-Nav. I first saw one of these in action when I took a hotel shuttle bus in Seattle, and it scared the life out of me. Quite apart from the fact that the driver had to pick up and drop off from only six hotels, and therefore one would have assumed that he knew where they were (!), he seemed glued to the Sat-Nav screen, following its contours religiously, rather than those of the actual streets on which he was driving. However, the screen only showed locations; it was not a real-time display of an actual situation; therefore people crossing at pedestrian crossings were not displayed – except in real life, at the real crossing, and by the eyes of the driver focussed on the REAL road. During a short 20 minute shuttle trip, my driver nearly wiped out three people at such crossings.

I do not know if any surveys have yet been undertaken on Sat-Nav related accidents, but I am going to predict that this machine will be responsible for a large number of events involving pedestrians, and that the statistics will become exponentially worse once Sat-Navs become as common as mobile phones. Doomwatchers may disagree with me, but they should remember that in this very magazine, more than two years ago, I predicted bio fuels would lead to rising food prices and attendant shortages, at a time when most people thought such a prediction was unfounded scare-mongering.

Personally, I have always enjoyed the challenge of navigating my way to new places, with the aid of only a road map, but apparently in our increasingly molly-coddled world, such a challenge is now unfashionable, and we must learn to allow computers to do a job that was once adequately served by our own brains.

All the above examples can be described, more or less, as irritations, but the situation becomes far more sinister when people turn to computers in order to compile what can only be called surrogate lives. This is happening before our very eyes, and it is a growth industry. Bizarre as it may seem, many people are using computers as surrogates for humans.

One psychologist recently predicted that by the middle of this century, lonely people, tired of trying to find a human partner, will effectively ‘marry’ a robot, a computerised machine which has been programmed to display loyalty and affection. We already see this – in a fledgling state – in computerised pets, robotic dogs and cats that can move around the house, bark, nod their heads, and even sit up and beg. These are especially popular in Japan, where space constraints in tiny apartments make them a more attractive proposition than the real thing – and much cleaner to maintain.

Beyond robots, people are also starting to use virtual reality to invent alter egos, through whose ‘lives’ they can fulfill their own. Here, they are requested to invent a new persona, an avatar, and once invented, this avatar can act out whatever role is demanded by its human idolater (I use the word advisedly).

For example, let us invent an avatar. We shall call her ‘Eve’. We can use the computer to place her in whatever surroundings we wish, even a Garden of Eden. We can clothe her with a fig leaf, but – ha, there’s the rub! For our Eve has fancier tastes than that. She is into Colette Dinnigan, Georgio Armani and Carla Zampatti. So we clothe her in virtual designer outfits, paid for with virtual money. Except that this is where the world of commerce comes in, for in order to acquire the virtual money, we have to use a real credit card, and pay with real money.

Astonishing as it may seem, people are parting with thousands of dollars in order to live out virtual fantasies on a computer screen, and at the other end of the equation, computer program designers are raking in millions, profiteering from what can only be the misery of other humans.

Misery, and as I suggested earlier, a sense of inadequacy. Can we not realise that any life, as humdrum and repetitive as it may be for many of us, is infinitely richer than something which appears on the screen of a machine, and which has been designed by somebody else, another human, and quite possibly one with equal or greater deficiencies than our own? Does our virtual Eve wish to meet a virtual Adam, and if so, will their original sin also be virtual? And will it be more enjoyable than the real thing?

If we truly are to accord ourselves the status of the most intelligent creatures on earth, surely it is time to come to terms with our own inadequacies, address them and combat them with all the mental versatility at our command. The alternative, to rely on a computer, is nothing less than an abrogation of our imagination, and, ultimately, of the human spirit itself.

David Scheel is a concert pianist, composer and humourist. Away from live performance he is also a respected writer and broadcaster on environmental and conservation issues. He lives in the Blue Mountains, NSW.

Share this post

Leave a Comment