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Michael Stutz :: People of the Past

            He was desperate, and now he finally began to sound that way. She was a statue resting on a couch, watching him intently as he spoke.

            “There’s got to be a way, something better! It’s gotta be better” — he had to catch himself; he was close to shouting now. But the bare restraint was fleeting. “There’s just gotta be a better way to get the words out, to get closer to the thought — yes! That’s what it is, I know it” — his voice took on a new pitch that glimmered in self-satisfaction — “it’s how to get the words out, how to get them closer to the thought: that’s it!”

            And then he explained how it could be done, how it all would be improved. First, he said, it had to be much better than the pocket notebooks he was using now.

            “They take forever to transcribe. So that’d be the first improvement of the device — your writing would be saved in a file on the computer automatically!”

            There was something that passed beneath his eyes, hard and distant, something that flashed with its own excited life and darted wildly as soon as he went on. “You could configure it so that it’d recognize the mannerisms of your writing style, like if you specify italics with underscores around the words or if you use forward slashes, or what — and it’d come to recognize your handwriting, and the touch-screen would have a special pen so you didn’t have to use ink — or no, no, maybe they’d work on a special screen that’d recognize any kind of pointed thing and so you could just use your finger. How ‘bout that” — he smiled broadly in the immense satisfaction of this new development — “you don’t even need a pen for this thing, but you’d just use your finger!”

            He was getting more excited now, and she could see it in his rapid gesticulations, the quick and countless motions of his body — his arms were going now, lifting and soaring in front of him as he sat there on the couch across from her, his eyes were mystified and wide, his fingers pointing straight: “They’d experiment with certain models that’d work with regular pens — you could use your favorite pen and the screens would have this special surface where the ink wouldn’t even come out — how ‘bout that!”

            He laughed in happy contemplation of this new embellishment, and then with arms down he lurched forward to explain it more. “It’d draw the ink-line on the screen so fast you’d think the pen was writing it, but it wasn’t — it was the machine doing it, a graphic image of the ink, and you could even configure the color. You could set it so the colors would change for syntax, like for marking quotations or correcting or whatnot — it’d be on a flat touch-screen that’d fit right in your pocket and the pen would be pressing it so that the screen would sense the pressure and draw, but the actual ink wouldn’t come out on the surface. ‘Course, you couldn’t use permanent markers with it. But you could even use your finger! Well how ‘bout that?”

            “That’s nice,” she said politely, her head held motionless by the giant lozenge of a cushion propped up against the wall. She knew that right now he needed her to listen — he trusted her implicitly, and when he’d get into these desperate moods about his work she knew it was her job to let him talk.

            “Okay, but then we need something faster.” He bent toward her again, eyed her straight on with a death-ray laser-lock. His voice went suddenly low and calm, an August tide at midnight. “Something even much faster than that. How could we get there? What could we do?”


                                                * * *


            He’d been leaning back in contemplative silence so that all the room had been on pause, and now as if he’d been sharply jabbed with an electric prod he suddenly bolted forward, his feet lifting from the floor — an idea seemed to rush into him, quickly, from somewhere far outside the room, and in return of the violent force of the collision he was pushing it back out. His right hand pointed at her in a sharp gesture and then went limp and finally, as he spoke again, hovered up and down above his lap in a soft dribble, all his fingers spread.

            “Okay, forget all that — it’s a new device that works like this. This is how it works” — he pointed again and then spoke calmly, as if the casts and molds were being put into place at the factory right now and the manuals were being written and the software all debugged and it’d be seen out on the store shelves in the fall.

            “There’s four strips, see, thin long strips that run down like this” — with his left hand he made a gesture indicating them, each about six inches long and separated by about an inch so that they could be traced down with the open fingers of a hand. Each one, he explained, would contain all the characters on it: the numerals 0 through 9 and any punctuation marks and all the letters from A to Z.

            “All the strips are identical, see, and you put your left hand over it like this, see” — he demonstrated in the air — “and you move your fingers over the proper level and give it a slight press, it’s like a touch-screen, and then it forms words that way — you input a word up to four characters at a time, and if it’s more you just press a dot that’s over here by your thumb, see — it’s not a strip like for the fingers but this is just a ‘continuation’ dot — and when you do that you can then advance with your fingers for the next four and you keep going like that until you get out the whole world.

            “Pauses in your motions make spaces in the text, and you can also put in punctuation, and to continue a word instead of going to a new one it’s all just in the way you bend your wrist so it’s real natural, it’s like this”—

            She watched as he demonstrated as if the unit were there before him, his fingers bending outward and the tendons on the back of his hand showing as long, burrowed mounds as he held a stiff position with his pinkie out and the next one high and the middle finger almost as high and the index finger down real low, and he said this was the word “this,” and then he shifted his fingers into a new position with two fingers bent in and said that it was the word “is,” and then again he showed her “a” with just his pinkie reaching up and all his fingers curled, and finally with his fingers positioned in another way it made “test” — and when he was done he repeated the whole demonstration all over again but one step faster, reciting the words as he shifted his fingers to each position.

            “This — is — a — test —”

            Then he did it again, and once more even faster, and he kept increasing the speed of his finger-shifting so that in a moment he couldn’t speak the words in time but his hand was gesticulating about in these contortions and he was going faster, with his mouth hung open, and he kept at it so the fingers of his left hand were nothing but a blur and then at the peak of it he let out a high, rip-roaring squeal of a laugh, “Hwwheee-hee-heeee!”

            His fingers kept twitching madly as she watched him, motionless, until he broke the silence with another exclamation: “Yes! This is how it’s gonna work!”

            She saw that he was anxious and excited now, and she let him tell her how he thought for certain that he’d figured out “how it’s gonna be,” that in just a year or so the world would all be using input devices like this, and then after he stared at his moving fingers he blurted jubilantly, “Just think about it, it all makes perfect sense!”


                                                * * *


            He kept with this new invention, and refined it as he went on: “The software’ll have all these heuristics so that if you’re just in the general vicinity of a particular word it’ll know what you’re talking about, and it’ll be able to pick out words from context if you have it configured to run in ‘context mode,’ and it’ll do automatic word completion and you’ll have dot-file configuration files so you don’t have to be totally one-hundred percent precise with your movements or even finish whole words, so that you can go even faster and it’ll figure it all out for you, it’ll feel like magic when it works — and you can even have units mounted vertically on the wall like this” — his left hand was out about six inches in front of him, just a foot to the left of his body — “and you’ll have this large screen right in front of your face like this, real close in front of you like this, and it’ll be super-high resolution and it’ll take your total field of vision, showing you the text that you’ve entered, and then they’ll have two-handed units so you can do both at the same time” — now he extended his right hand out, to the right of his imaginary full-field monitor, and he twitched both hands in bony gestures, at different speeds and intervals and making different motions — “see, you can type twice as fast, do a word at a time on each hand, or you can set it up to divide the screen in two and reply to two messages at once, it’ll be great! It’ll inspire a whole new way of working and people’ll be able to write two letters at once, with blazing speeds like this, or you’ll have two Emacs text-editing buffers open side by side — it’ll be the new interface to the next generation of Emacs — and you’ll be able to do long words by doing the first four letters on the left hand and the next four on the right, get them out in two-hand chords, it’ll be great!”

            He continued bending and spreading his fingers in a double-handed demonstration, and eventually when he was satisfied he moved his hands down to his side, and continued bending and spreading his fingers there against his thighs, just as quickly as before, and now he said, “Of course, you can have side-mounted units, too — these’ll be good for typing when you’re walking. See, it all depends on what you like best.”

            He spread and bent his left-hand fingers on the arm of his couch while his right hand continued by his leg.

            “See? Like this — it’ll be great!”

            And a moment later he lifted his right hand and looked at the finger tips with the bending and spreading and he said, “This’ll be the new international sign language — it’ll be the new way of talking — people who are deaf will communicate like this — everyone’ll be able to get everything across without speaking, and it’ll be fast — everyone’ll talk more — it’ll be like a new kind of writing — even elevator buttons’ll be labeled with these hand-dots and there’ll be signs everywhere with the dots in the proper hand positions and people’ll know instantly what the words mean, and what things say — all the highway signs’ll have ‘em — when you go out they’ll have these long ticker-tape displays that’ll have hand-dot images coming out of ‘em, streaming out and showing the positions and people’ll know and understand.

            “And they’ll have a new device, something similar that’s built on these same principles, but we’ll use it to read with our hands too, like this” — now he showed her this new feature of the device, stretching his arms out toward her — “it just connects to each finger like this, see, you put this metal ring-cup on each fingertip, each one has a tiny piston on it, and instead of strips with the characters on it the device is wired to move your fingers — all five move at once, and it puts your fingers in a word position. The fingers get automatically moved by the machine into the position of a word! Do you see?”

            He moved his hands into these positions and made the bsht! bsht! sounds of the pistoned machinery, and did all this very fast and automatically, with increasing speed, with him pausing at each unique position and then quickly shifting to the next with a quick low bsht! — and while he did this he looked at her and watched her eyes as they observed the motions of the hands, which were out in the space between them, right in front of her.

            She’d been very quiet during his entire presentation, just watching him from her comfortable and semi-reclining position on the couch, just listening — and now he softly added, as if she’d asked a question, “The reason you’d connect the hydraulics is so that your fingers would be moved into the position of the word that the machine wants you to read — so you’d be reading from your fingertips, you could do it with your eyes closed, and it’d be a way to communicate through the net. You get it?”

            She kicked her feet up and her arms pushed forward like they were twin palmettos with wrists bent all the way up and fingers splayed, and with a squinty sour face she hollered, “Yes! Stop!” Then she grabbed the big cushion that’d been behind her head and pulled it out in front of her, covering her eyeglasses and the whole of her face. Her muffled cry came out from under: “I’ve had enough of this madness!”

            “And it’d let you listen!” — he blurted this as if he hadn’t heard her, and he moved his fingers faster now and made all the mechanical bsht! sounds, which now came out in a long fast bsht!bsht!bsht!bsht!bsht!bsht!bsht!, his fingers flicking wildly.

            “So you could be hooked up to the net and you could talk with one hand and listen with the other” — he moved his hands out in front of him again, on each side of his imaginary screen — “so you’d be talking with the one, reading with the other, and the screen would show you other things that’d be happening — they could even be separate conversations — you’d be processing so much information at once!”

            He was thinking of more improvements to his device when again she shouted, “Stop!” — and this time threw the cushion up above her. It fell heavily and then flopped over to the space beside her on the couch, like a B-movie imitation boulder. “I’m going to have nightmares about this stuff tonight!”

            She was speaking in good humor — his mind had never ceased to amaze her, after all — but the fact was that he’d been having nightmares and they were constant, even whispering to him in the waking day. He knew that thought was instantaneous and without time and that all writing, the act of it, was a gradual approach to a timeless thought-state far away. Right now the best things that they had — keyboards, even audio recorders — just weren’t fast enough, couldn’t get there close to the ideal, to the far place, to where he wanted. He had so much in him, so much that he had to tell, and he was caged by time.

            So even now as he worked out this frustration, swaying and bending all the fingers of his hands wildly so that they were like the creepy sentient motions of tarantulas, and as he was rocking his torso forward and back, gesticulating madly, he knew that what he’d just described was different, he knew that such ideas must be taken like how people of the past — even people you might recognize in films, from not that long ago, from the early decades of the last century — how they might think of the world of now, if they were magically and instantaneously transported to it here and shown all the computers and networks and the wires and technology that were the current facts of daily living. He knew that what he was suggesting might seem odd and shocking and perhaps a little scary, this incredible new world of the future that he was describing, but he also knew that right now it was his job to get them there.




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« Shome Dasgupta :: At The Bus Stop | Contents | Adam Moorad :: The Snake People »