A Call for Digital Temperance...
A Ramblin' Gamblin' Willie story by Greg Swann
"A mind is a terrible thing to digitize!"
So said the portly, bald-headed man in front of one of the electronics stores on West Thirty-Second Street.
"Our children are being seduced by the drug of mental atrophy!"
You may choose to regard it as evidence of his own mental agility: he was wearing a heavy black overcoat on one of the hottest days of July. Also a sandwich board. On the front it read 'Stop The Calculator Pushers!'. On the back, 'Support The Digital Temperance League', with a phone number.
I pride myself on my ability to ask that concise, meaty question that will unfold the entire story: I said, "'Digital Temperance League'?"
His voice had that quality I think of as 'dogmatic evangelical'; that teetering-on-the-edge-of-violence tone that your mother used to use when she really wanted you to clean your room. "The last fortress," he evangelized, "between your child and perpetual ignorance!"
"I don't have a child..."
"Well then, for the children of your friends and relatives! The Digital Temperance League protects the minds of children everywhere!"
Another incisive question: "Protects them from what?"
"From the Calculator Pushers!," he seethed. "From that vile seductress, the home computer! From the agonized writhing of software addiction!"
He scowled. "The Devil's own agents! The temptresses of the silicon high! They use low prices and rebates to tease your child into that first thrill! Then, when he's hooked, he's their slave forever!"
"...are you serious?"
"May God strike me dead as I stand here," he sermonized, "nothing could be more serious!" His expression spoke of angry righteousness. "Look at this!" He pointed to one of the ads pasted in the store window. "A thirty dollar calculator on sale for seventeen dollars! And if you mail in a coupon, you get five dollars back! The price of permanent addiction is only fourteen dollars!"
I said: "Twelve dollars."
"Twelve dollars. Seventeen minus five is twelve."
"Oh," he said. "Well, you know what I meant!"
"Perhaps better than you," I muttered.
"Never mind... That's really something, isn't it? That much computational power for only twelve dollars?"
"The seeds of destruction! The first chapter of the book of eternal perdition!"
"A calculator! Calculators are destroying the brains of our children!"
Isn't this where I came in? I never know when to walk away. "...how so?"
"By making math too easy for them! The Digital Temperance League has statistics that prove that calculator addiction is an immense and growing scourge! Thirteen percent of all schoolchildren cannot do arithmetic without them! And another forty-one percent require intense remediation to make them mathematically literate! That's sixty-four percent!"
I said: "Fifty-four."
"Thirteen plus forty-one is fifty-four, not sixty-four."
"Oh," he said. "Well, you know what I mean!"
I murmured, "Do you...?"
"Anyway," he continued, "more than half of our children cannot do math without calculators!"
"Hmmm... Your assumption is that, absent calculators, they'd do better... Moreover, what about the other half? Don't calculators permit them to do more math better and faster?"
"At the price of silicon dependence!"
"But, still," I said, "they are able to go further faster by having a mule to do the mule labor, right?"
"At the price of permanent bondage to Calculator Pushers!"
"But they do get more math done in less time, don't they?"
"By selling their souls to the Devil! By spending their lives in a frenzied silicon haze!"
I chuckled softly, to myself. "Learning more, better and faster is the kind of frenzy I'd like to see in more students..."
"You're one of them!," he shrieked.
"...I guess so. I love my calculator; I use it all the time."
"Oh, you poor misbegotten soul! Praise the Lord that you found Digital Temperance in time! Our Outpatient Clinic for the Digitally Dependent will have you cured in no time!"
I smiled. "I have no desire to be 'cured'."
He moaned. "Spare me, Jesus! A hardened addict! A prideful sinner! A slave of the digital Devil!"
A nonsense addict, maybe. A slave to the thrill of moronic reasoning... I said: "Those are pretty nice shoes you're wearing... Do you consider yourself a slave to the shoe industry?"
No answer, just a confused look.
"Why are you wearing those shoes?," I asked.
"Are you kidding?," he said. "Look at this street! Rocks! Dirt! Glass shards!"
"But those shoes keep your feet soft and tender. If someday you have to walk barefoot, you'll get cuts and blisters. You won't be able to do it. Face it, you're a shoe addict."
He just scowled.
I smiled. "Isn't it the same thing...?"
"No!," he bellowed. "Calculator addiction is a scourge! The digital demon is evil! The Calculator Pushers must be stopped!"
A confused-looking matron was passing by. She pressed a five dollar bill into his palm. He smiled, thanking her profusely.
"Let's see...," he mused. "I had thirty-one dollars, so that makes thirty-seven."
I said: "Thirty-six."
He gave me a quizzical look.
"Thirty-one plus five is thirty-six, not thirty-seven."
"Oh. Well, you know what I mean!"
"Yes," I muttered, "I guess I do..."
"What was that?"
I said, "Never mind..." That much I know for sure: no mind, ever.