What I'm Thinking Of - Lois Greene Stone

Artificial Yet Intelligent
            Artificial intelligence. Intelligence is a genetic gift. “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” … would you want to be smart only to have it taken away? Will stem cell from research become real-life? Is manipulation or experimentation ‘artificial’?
            “Alexa, turn on the light.” My husband raises his voice, and a cylinder in the family room reacts. It is dusk. She answers, “okay,” and a floor lamp’s bulb responds. I ask ‘her’ about the forecast, to set a timer as I prepare to make dinner; my mate wants the score of the football game currently being played in another state.
            Do I want to upgrade to the new blob that can make phone calls and have video chats? I wonder about this. I can Skype on my computer, and Face Time on my digital phone. Do I want the competing device that allows multiple speakers offering surround sound, yet has the same basic function as Alexa?
            I read 1984 with the same attitude as comics that had decoder rings, or a camera hidden in a tie tack. There were no tie tacks then, only tie bars, and rings were just that, rings. The idea that someone could watch whatever I was doing was absurd; I closed my bedroom door, and the outside vanished. MY things, my room, my privacy surrounded me. I listened to the radio programs I wanted; my parents and sisters could do the same in their private spaces. Television altered that  ̶  we grouped around a tiny screen seeing only ‘test patterns’ for most of the time as programs were infrequent.
            Recording devices were fat reels with thin magnetic tape housed in a suitcase-like box. They could capture songs coming from the radio, the family singing or any one of us playing the piano, the audio of a special event as a wedding. We controlled what they did. WE turned on a light, oven, raised furnace’s temperature, used a paper dictionary, put a 78 rpm on a spindle and had brief minutes of recorded music before having to turn the shellacked disk over to the other side, dialed a telephone. How much was a recipe’s measurements if cut in half? Calculations were done with pencil and paper.
            “Echo, play Frank Sinatra music.” The hockey-puck sized Echo lights up when my husband enters his office room. Her circular colors indicate her obedience. She doesn’t require food, or sleep, or positive strokes to get through the day. She doesn’t need a flu shot, or shingles vaccine, or to bathe. She’s an object. Or is she? We have to be careful with our words else either of the devices will ‘hear’ and start. I’ve begun a sentence with ‘the economy,’ and she turns on just hearing the ‘eco’. And when my neighbor, Alex, calls, I hesitate to say his name or AI lights up happily thinking ‘she’ has been invited to talk. Is both our ‘cylinder’ and the ‘dot’ intelligent for real?
            Are we being secretly recorded and the information stored on a ‘cloud’ as are items from our computers? Do you think 1984 has still avoided our homes? Are we safe to have heated discussions about news items, politics, religion, culture or is this seemingly-silent-until-we-activate-her blob really a listening device? Just in case we really are not alone, when we are near one of our AI machines, and are having a debate or serious conversation, we whisper.

Published Nov. 2017 Scarlet Leaf Review

Of a Donkey and an Elephant
            When I reached voting age in New York State, I had to be twenty-one and bring proof. Clutching my birth certificate in one hand, Bachelor of Arts in the other, I faced a wooden table in the Long Island elementary school I’d once attended. I glanced at metal steps remembering my demerits when the stair-monitor caught me climbing two at a time.
            Being a ‘legal’ adult was liberating. I was attending an Ivy League graduate school, but looked so young that the election-volunteer questioned both my age and proof-certificates. I felt as if I were going to get a demerit again.
            My grandfather, a political photographer who photographed every President from Taft through Truman, was naturalized in December 1917. He carried his citizenship as if it were a prize… as my grandmother had felt about registering her children’s births when such certificates were not mandatory. Voting was an honor as well as a right. Though they’d married in New York, the gift of vote happened with the swearing-in to be an official American.
            It was my turn. I lowered my eyes and stared briefly at the concrete floor. Then I suddenly remembered being in high school, seeing a donkey and an elephant on the Social Studies standardized Regents Exam, given only in New York State. But I couldn’t recall which meant Republican and which meant Democrat. I was asked about affiliation as I slowly raised my head. I then recalled high school’s Up and also Down staircases and how one could get a demerit for going ‘up’ a flight marked ‘down’, but not the animal’s symbol and which party was which. How did my parents vote? Why hadn’t I asked? In college, I did have to take courses such as International Law, but no one ever lectured about the United States party-system and what each was supposed to represent to the public.
            Affiliation? I decided to check one box before I left, and, for the last time ever, exited the basement level of the elementary school where I’d spent eight childhood years. It was a comfort to know that I might have little awareness of candidates when I’d finally entered a voting booth for the first time, but next time I’d know which lever to pull.
            Could I call myself ‘unaffiliated’ during the Korean War while I was in college and classmates wondered why Stevenson, a divorced man, could not win an election? My voting savvy hadn’t progressed much, and I didn’t know too many divorced people but wondered what that had to do with being a good President. Well, more people had heard of Dwight D. Eisenhower, and his feats, so I assumed Stevenson’s divorce might not have mattered. So why were my peers making such an issue about that? I had already learned of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s affair and was more bewildered why he did that when his wife was a true humanitarian. What could he have been looking for in someone else?
            I used an Absentee Ballot in 1960 as my due-date for giving birth and getting out to vote were not compatible. Being still somewhat naive and not liking all the insincere dialogue from candidates, I don’t even remember which ‘x’ box I used. I respected words, having been an English teacher, and politicians were using them for ‘gain’ and not values. I’d known about little-lies as a child, but these potential victors were definitely saying what others expected to hear and not what they’d actually do as promised in their platforms. I began to loathe politics for the phony speeches and the special lighting/make-up to enhance physical appearance now that TV was a vehicle.
            Often the lever I’ve pulled is more ‘against’ a candidate than ‘for’ another! And name-calling seems to start before whomever wins gets sworn in! Voting age is now eighteen, and many have had licenses to drive since sixteen. Those documents which state I was officially age twenty-one and able to cast a ballot sit with personal papers turning slightly yellow with time. The Internet has made campaigns social and an open arena for a type of bullying. Acquaintances can’t really discuss politics for fear of intimidation if a disagreement happens.
            Alone in the woods, what are the sounds made by donkeys and elephants?

            How could I explain ‘typewriter’ to young grandson Kevin in this 21st century? I rolled an 8½ x 11″ paper onto a rubber platen, manually adjusted left/right margins, then firmly depressed keys which struck against inked ribbon. Mistakes meant hand-rolling the platen high enough to dab white-out on the mark. Since I couldn’t rollback to the exact place to type over the error, I had re-do the page. Made no sense since Kevin didn’t know what platen or inked ribbon meant.
            I remembered being ready to convert hand-written notes to type. My eyes transcribed but my moving fingers generally forgot the typing paper’s lower margin needed an inch left blank. I completely re-did the entire page mindful of the needed last inch. Each page required inserting a new sheet of paper and trying to cease typing before the same running-off-the-paper happened again. Kevin didn’t comprehend running-completely-off-the- page and ending up typing on that rubber cylinder.
            Each time I came to the end of a line, I shifted to the next by pulling a metal lever. No word-wrap.  He was clueless as to shift-lever.
            I used carbon paper to make duplicate copies. If I needed a form letter to, say, apply for a summer job, I’d have to completely re-type the letter, as many times as I’d potential employers, so as to change the person’s name after writing ‘Dear’. Kevin didn’t know what carbon paper was either. I was living the Abbott and Costello skit ‘who’s on first’; I knew who was on first but he was bewildered by my explanation.
            With a word processor, I just type and copy wraps around the screen separating itself so I can forget the shift to a new line each time one ends. My form letters can be stored with names changed in seconds but text staying the same. It can be saved for re-use. I can’t run to the bottom of the page where the paper ends as the program simply makes a new page for me. No more “oops” problems as I just delete the mistake and substitute the correction, and the word processor moves the paragraph around to make room for it. Nope, this is automatic for it. I can’t even use the analogy of the electric garage-door opener that uses an unseen ‘radio wave’ rather than hoisting a door, or the television’s remote control, or having to once manually address the buttons on the TV set itself to change channels. No one in Kevin’s life comprehends that any more than I understood my mother talking about street lamps with gaslights, or horses and buggies that still existed during her childhood.
            My heavily-used dictionary is also ‘old’. The word hardware, today, is no longer a nut, bolt, screwdriver, or hammer. There’s no listing on any worn page for the current usage of keyboard, monitor, disk drives, modems, chips, floppies, flash drives, or even smart phones.
            Composer Leroy Anderson’s song “The Typewriter” calls for an orchestra’s percussionist to actually ‘play’ the theme by depressing the metal keys on a cumbersome black Remington-Rand. Many audiences don’t recognize that ‘instrument’.
            In future decades, which, to this young boy, sounds like a zillion at this point in time, I think he’ll wonder why his offspring can’t comprehend what his old-fashioned computer did in the early part of the 21st century.

Published Oct. 7, 2009   The Brighton-Pittsford Post

Lois Greene Stone, writer and poet, has been syndicated worldwide. Poetry and personal essays have been included in hard and softcover anthologies. Collections of her personal items/ photos/ memorabilia are in major museums including twelve different divisions of The Smithsonian.