Damn the Internet-enabled Pusher Man

I don’t want my refrigerator setting up dates on the internet. Ever!

I’d be frosted to return home to find a bill on my door saying I’d missed a service call I had never set up.

When I first read about internet-enabled refrigerators, I felt certain they’d prove to be a trial balloon that wouldn’t fly. Surely, focus groups would reveal that people didn’t want to have to install “parental” controls or fuss with software updates for refrigerators!

But a few months ago, this dumb idea materialized in Lowe’s — smart refrigerators!

Frankly, I think that too many “smart” devices are monitoring our purchases, travel and daily habits already. Each one of those devices — our computers, phones, satellite dishes and internet-connected TVs — not only invite software viruses, but also open the door to identity-theft and spying. Yes, Big Brother can snoop, but I’m more worried about Big Business. Alexa and Siri are convenient, but they could worm into our internet searches, purchases and activities, becoming more intrusive than anything George Orwell ever envisioned.

Call me a Luddite, but I’m opposed to purchasing devices that monitor me or push me into commitments or decisions I didn’t intentionally initiate. I don’t like the way my City Market discount account tracks my purchases. I dislike automated bank withdrawals. I hate software agreements that sign me up for junk mail. I loathe “subscriptions” I must call to cancel; they can prove harder to withdraw from than crack cocaine!

But commerce wants us hooked and habituated. Companies like steady income. Why suffer seasonal sales or intermittent software releases if you can figure out how to generate “passive income”?

That’s why many companies are developing ways to automate purchases. Amazon, for example, is working on a “Dash Button” that would automatically order groceries when your pantry runs low

The notion of renting software from the cloud has spread wildly in the five years since Adobe changed its sales model. In 2013, Adobe quit selling software, instead offering $50 monthly subscriptions for its bundled Creative Suite, or individual subscriptions for programs within Creative Suite. At the time, CNET commented: “Early pioneers … argued that customers are better off with a steady stream of payments that gets them a steady stream of updates.”

Although I dislike updates and antivirus software, I detest this. For years, I used Photoshop, Dreamweaver and InDesign professionally. Each cost around $800. Alternatively, I could buy Creative Suite (CS) for $2,600. Expensive, but I could use my software for years if I didn’t need Adobe’s latest bells and whistles. Usually, I didn’t.

Eventually, the CS6 I bought in 2013 will fail because it will no longer work with my computer’s updated operating system. At that point, I’ll say goodbye to Adobe.

The issue isn’t just that I’m retired and want to limit recurrent bills. The proliferation of forced monthly payments — fees that are hidden or pushed on me due to lack of other options — angers me in several ways: I feel nickled-and-dimed to death! I don’t like cyber-spies in my home or pocket. Worst of all, remote-control billing undermines my financial control.

I already have an auto-deducted mortgage and tax-escrow account. I pay a monthly gas bill; an electric bill; house, car and medical insurance; a monthly internet fee; a TV subscription; cell and landline bills. I refused a monthly satellite radio subscription for the car. I won’t buy “extended warranties” for my stove, freezer or (thankfully-dumb) refrigerator. (Many consumer advocates say “buyer protection plans” range from a sucker’s bet to outright fraud.)

My distaste isn’t just personal. It’s also social, an aversion that brings some Steppenwolf lyrics to mind: “The dealer, for a nickel, will sell you lots of dreams, but the pusher will ruin your body and leave your mind to scream.”

Is this analogy a little harsh?

A 2015 Harris Poll found that about one-third of U.S. households earning $75,000 and above annually live paycheck to paycheck. A 2016 survey done by the Federal Reserve found that 46 percent of Americans didn’t have enough money to cover a $400 emergency expense. What happens if the breadwinner suffers an accident and is unable to intervene in the automated monthly bloodletting? Or worse yet, loses a job?

If it’s a set monthly fee, how do you tighten your belt? Does one automatically get booted out of the electronic connections needed to hold or find a job? Do you lose the means to keep your body fed and housed? And then, your rights as a citizen?

In the hour of crisis, will we be left to scream and fight the pusher man to preserve our independence and dignity?

Am I the only one who finds consumer addiction a poor model for civil society?

 

This column was originally published in the Glenwood Springs Post Independent on Jan. 25, 2018

Two Years to Live?

“This is probably the disease that’s going to take you out.” I heard those words from my doctor a couple weeks ago.

Of course, life itself is a fatal condition. None of us gets out of here alive.

But having recently retired, I was looking forward to spending a decade or two painting and writing newspaper columns. I wasn’t planning an imminent tête-à-tête

with the Grim Reaper.

So my question is, “How soon?”

Answers are in short supply. Medical literature says two to 20 years. Twenty is more than the U.S. Census Bureau expects for someone of my vintage. Ten would be okay. But two years? Two years?

An email meltdown about that prompted my minister, the Reverend Shawna Foster of Two Rivers Unitarian Universalist congregation, to come visit me. She came bearing a pink carnations and a story: Some years ago, Shawna attended the wake given by a woman who had been diagnosed with a virulent form of breast cancer. The woman had 18 months to live. She responded by throwing a gala “living wake” to celebrate her life and say goodbye to friends and loved ones.

 

But the gala that Rev. Shawna attended was the woman’s 23rd wake!

This story, in combination with advice my doctor gave me, has prompted me to announce my upcoming demise.

Dr. Katy Rieves (I cannot sing her praises, or those of Mountain Family Health loudly enough) told me that I should manage an upcoming trip to a specialist by assuming the very best outcome I can imagine. Dr. Katy told me to keep imagining the best right up to 24 hours before the visit. But on the last day, I should begin to assume the worst.

This is medically sound advice. Clinical studies show that patients who are optimistic have the best outcomes. And it’s very likely that what the specialist will tell me will fall short of the horrors I envision for that 24-hour period, so I won’t be blown away by bad news.

Mashing up my physician’s and my minister’s sage advice, I’m hereby announcing my death, in January, 2020. When I’m gone, I’d like those who cared about me to scatter my ashes on Mt. Sopris.

Meanwhile, I’ll try to make every day count. I will be working hard on a retrospective show of my artwork. I’m going to spend more time admiring the transitive beauty of hummingbirds, autumn leaves and snowflakes. Beginning with this column, I plan to begin wrestling with the topic of “memento mori”.

That Latin phrase roughly translates to “remember that you have to die.” In this culture, we don’t talk much about death, and our physicians are acculturated to ward it off and hence, skirt the issue. (Rev. Shawna says that’s what keeps ministers in business.)

But historically, Christians wove the mememto mori theme into life in many ways: Our Puritan forebears ornamented headstones with winged skulls and angels snuffing out candles. On Christian Gebhard’s huge, 1895 public mechanical clock, a skeleton appears to strike the hour. On Ash Wednesday, the words, “Remember, Man that you are dust and unto dust you shall return” are intoned as worshipers are marked with ash.

Life, and all the works of man, are so fragile.

When I lived in San Francisco, I used to stand before a display case in the Legion of Honor museum and marvel at a 3-inch-high, cobalt blue flask. It dated from the first century. How could that fragile, Roman artwork survive wars, floods, earthquakes and the frailties of human error to be transported across the oceans and so many centuries intact?

Ah, but how many of its fellows perished? Glass-making began about 3,500 years ago in Mesopotamia. How many millions of beautiful vessels have been dashed to pieces? How many hours of artistry perished? How many artisans have been forgotten?

The Buddhists teach that everything is already broken.

Thai Buddhist master Achaan Cha was said to have held up a favorite tumbler and said, “For me, this glass is already broken. I enjoy it; I drink out of it. It holds water admirably, sometimes even reflecting the sun in beautiful patterns… But when I put this glass on the shelf, when the wind knocks it over or my elbow brushes it off the table and it falls to the ground and shatters, I say, ‘Of course.’ When I understand that the glass is already broken, every moment with it is precious.”

So it is for me, for you, for all of us.

Perhaps my glass is half-full. Perhaps I will plan a living wake. Perhaps more than one wake. Time will tell.

 

This Seeking Higher Ground column was originally published in the Sopris Sun newspaper on January 17, 2018.