What do iPods and cell phones have in common with Jacob's ladder?


I resist change – especially the computer-related variety. I was just about the last person I know to get a cell phone, and the one I have now still isn’t the kind with a camera. For the past few years, as more and more people around me got – and learned how to use – iPods, I continued to buy and listen to my music the old-fashioned way: Go to the store, buy the CD, and put it in your CD player.

CDs themselves took a long enough time for me to get used to, back in the 80s. There was, I thought, something sinister about the way you couldn’t actually see the evidence of the songs on the CD surface. Not like records where the grooves in the vinyl were right there, plain as day – the long songs wider, the shorter ones skinnier. Now, with iPods (I finally broke down and got one) even those disks are gone. Day by day, in a thousand different ways, my world is revealing itself to be one of information, of data: Data that can be caught and preserved with ever less help from the material world.

Of course, the material world is still necessary for all this to happen. The songs in my iPod, the family photos I've scanned and transferred to my computer: all this stuff is still every bit as anchored to the physical as it was before. But the effect – the illusion – is that it isn't.

That's why, I suspect, I'm always so suspicious of each new technological innovation that comes along offering to take away yet another part of my familiar, three-dimensional world and store it digitally for me. Where are you taking this? some part of me asks. Am I really safe in entrusting it to you?

It isn’t like I don't want the good things in my life – the songs, the pictures – to be saved. After all, the desire to rescue the things we love down here on earth from the clutches of decay and destruction is one of the oldest – perhaps the oldest – of human desires. And if all this technology were really doing that – if it were really taking the flawed, grubby details of my life and translating them to a world of spirit – I wouldn't suffer so much ambiguity about the whole business.

But the fact is technology isn't doing that at all. Technology – even at its most rarefied, magical moments – only pretends to save our world for us.

So does that mean I can't enjoy this technology? That I can't appreciate the magic of having a thousand songs crammed into a little white cube that’s smaller than a cigarette pack, or marvel at some old family photo that arrives – miraculously – via email from some far away relative?

Not at all. All I have to do is remember to keep in mind the story of Jacob, and his ladder of angels.

Jacob, as everyone knows, saw that ladder in a dream one night when he lay down to sleep with his head on a stone.

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