Welcome to the New Whatever

So the phone rings, and I know before I look that it’s Lars Abraham calling from Seattle State University. I’m so glad I got the idea of setting “Kol Nidre” as Lars’s custom ringtone.

“How’s it going, Lars,” I answer.

“Not so good, Tim.”

“Listen, Lars,” I say, “can I call you back? I can call you back in … 2017. How does 2017 sound?”

“Hilarious as ever, Tim. No, you may not call back. I have serious structural problems to discuss.”

“Lower back acting up?”

“No, you noodnik. I am talking about structural problems in academic work. They have implications for work in many fields, as a matter of fact.”

“Shoot, Lars,” I say, putting him on speaker and opening Candy Crush.

“Tim, at Seattle State we record grades and communicate with students using something on a computer that is called Blackboard. You may have a similar system.”

“Uh-hunnnh,” I drone.

“This morning, I logged into Blackboard – I can do such things, you know, I have a few tricks left in me – and I see a smoky screen over the regular screen that says WELCOME TO THE NEW BLACKBOARD!! WOULD YOU LIKE TO TAKE A TOUR?? I would not like to take a tour. I would like to enter quiz grades. So I do what I always do with a computer. I hit some keys at random and eventually the smoky transparency goes away and I enter my grades.”

“Lars, my Give-a-Damn gauge is dropping below Empty.”

“It is not just Blackboard, Tim. Our other system for entering grades and communicating with students is called SelkieSelfie. Now, why we need two systems is a mystery. In fact there are more than two. We have SSUSShare and SharePuget and WaShareington. We have DS-Prod and Mentos. I must log into each of these at least once a week. I am not doing badly at this, Tim. I use the same account name for each of them. My name is ABRAHAM and my password is …”

“Don’t say it, Lars, someone will steal your identity!”

“Tim, I am 84 and my hemorrhoids are 46, the thieves are welcome to my identity. As I say, I am able to log into everything. But twice a year, we get a new version of each system. All the buttons change. Everything is in a different place.”

“LUDD-ite,” I intone.

“I am not a Luddite, Tim. I was building crystal radio sets back when you were a zygote. Tim, these systems are not highly intuitive to begin with. When you log into SelkieSelfie, it asks you what semester you want to access.”

“It’s Fall ’14, Lars. As in Obama, not as in Woodrow Wilson.”

“I know, but it does not give me the option of Fall 2014. The default option is Spring 1964. I have to scroll down fifty years to get into my class rolls. And then when I click on a student record, the first thing SelkieSelfie shows me is what currency the student pays their tuition in. I have to click three more times if I want to e-mail them. Then the e-mail does not Send unless you hit Cancel.”

“Sounds like you’ve mastered things, though, Lars.”

“I have but then, you see, every six months the system changes. We get NewSelkieSelfie and SEEattle 2.0. Tim, the library catalog has changed four times in the last three years. I know there are MARC records for books buried somewhere beneath the interface. But I cannot find them. I entered “Timon of Athens” the other day and I got six sponsored ads for Lion King merchandise and three for Aegean cruise ships.”

“Those are the most popular results, Lars.”

“They are results for morons. Whatever happened to Title Search? On catalog cards you could do this.”

“Lars, as I said, this is the 21st century. We need new systems with new interfaces every few months so that we can take advantage of their dynamic power.”

“We need them like a hole in the head. Tim, do you know what the single most visited site on the Internet is?”

“I’m not sure I should name it on a family weblog.”

“Get your mind out of the gutter. No, Tim, it is Google. And when you go to Google, what do you see?”

“Some weird-ass cartoon that doesn’t look like the word Google?”

“Besides that, you see a white page with a place to enter your search term. The same white page you saw in 1998. What you do not see is WELCOME TO THE NEW GOOGLE. In addition, this Google thing works, yes? Our Mentos Professional Development system will only work in Chrome on a Macintosh if you type on a Cyrillic keyboard when the moon is full.”

“And after clearing your browser cache, Lars. Always clear the browser cache.”

“Tim, do you know what I call a website that only works after you clear your browser cache? I call it a Website That Does Not Work.”

“Yak yak yak, Lars, OK, you don’t like the modern world. I bet you’re talking into a phone on the wall while you hold the blower up to your ear.”

“I am talking on a Trimline pushbutton phone, for your information. The buttons are in the handset. But that is not important, Tim. There is something larger at stake. By constantly adopting new systems, institutions are decimating the productivity of their workers. If I must spend six hours a week learning new library systems – systems that are less efficient than card catalogues – that is six hours less I can spend on actual research.”

“There’s always some excuse not to write that book, isn’t there?”

“New is not always bad, Tim. I read Shakespeare on a Kindle now. But the Kindle works. And it works because it works like a book, and a book, I know how to read. I do not know how SelfieShare and SSkittles work. And by the time I do know how they work, I must deal with their most recent releases and learn all over again how to use them.”

“Sorry, Lars, gotta go, I got app updates coming in.”

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