Magical Thinking

Friday, July 5th, 2013

By Robert C. Koehler

My laptop started making funny noises a few days ago and I knew that wasn’t good. I’m embarrassed to say that my first instinct was to hope they’d just go away.

I also had a quick, guilty thought about an essay by Umberto Eco I read some years back, comparing science and technology. Whereas the former involves a painstaking commitment to gather knowledge and understanding over the long haul, the latter hides the process of its becoming, simply giving the user a raw upgrade of power – instant, godlike. Wow, look what I can do! Technology encourages magical thinking, Eco wrote. And no piece of modern, reasonably priced technology spews magical thinking into the social arena more seductively than the computer.

OMG! Seduction, indeed! We – I – have gotten so used to such dazzling possibility: all human knowledge at my fingertips, plus . . .  cool games, great oldies, satellite photos of every square inch of the planet, ten thousand sources of news, video footage of dead celebrities, infinite trivia and the search engines to serve it up to me. Every time my creative process stalls, I can wander into the distraction of my choosing and stay there for as long as I like. As a modern man, this is my entitlement. And this is what the writing process has become for me.

So when my four-and-a-half-year-old laptop started crackling, softly at first, like a bowl of Rice Krispies, I refused to surrender to my dark trepidations. This doesn’t sound so bad I actually need to deal with it, I reasoned. I mean, come on, I’ve got work to do! This is life on the far side of magical thinking, where reality’s warning signals are held in subconscious abeyance for as long as possible.

The next day the crackling was louder. Fortunately, my housemate, who actually knew something about computers, was around. “It sounds like the hard drive spindle,” he said. “You know, the only moving part.”

And suddenly I felt an emotional shift. All the decades I’d spent achieving computer mastery, all my facility navigating human knowledge, all the brilliance of my ideas, paled before the clarity of his diagnosis. “Oh, the hard drive spindle.” I felt grounded.

And I realized that I simply have not spent much time wondering how a computer works, even at the simplest level. And the more bedazzled I became over the decades by what I could do with it, and the more my self-importance swelled, the more I stopped caring. I gradually allowed myself to take its capabilities utterly for granted, at the same time that I spent more and more of my life sitting in front of it. All the important stuff I did was computer-centered.

You might say that virtual reality had come to feel like home. It’s so much more convenient – no dusting! – than the multi-dimensional world I’d abdicated, and its fascinations were at my total disposal. Magical thinking is addictive, at least until it hiccups.

However, once I had a fragmentary grasp of what was going on, I came to my senses and instantly reprioritized. OK, I know, I’m supposed to write a column tomorrow, but this can’t wait. I shut down my magic machine and headed off to my local Geek Squad to get it fixed.

Oh laptop, a mere four and a half years in my possession! Uh, it’s kind of obsolete, they said. The money you invest in repair could go toward a new machine, one that’s much faster. “More magical.” They didn’t say that but they meant it. And: “The prices start pretty low.”

Well, what could it hurt to look around? As I did so, I thought about my mother’s old Underwood typewriter. I think she acquired it in 1936. Twenty-five years later, I learned to type on it. You had to hit each key with a karate chop, or so I always mused in retrospect, but at the time it was still pretty much state of the art. I used it through high school and, at graduation, received my own manual typewriter. It was durable. Four years later, it was not obsolete. I loved it, but never got addicted to it.

I wandered through the store. “This one’s on sale,” the salesgal said. “It’s a great price. It has everything you need.” And I bought it.

Now they’re transferring data from the old machine to the new one. They’re a little backed up. It could take two days. So, in the meantime, I sit here poised over a spiral notebook, wielding a Paper Mate pen. I keep trying to check my email or search the history of Underwood or read the news, then, oops, calm yourself, man. What you see is what you get. Pen. Paper. That’s it. I can’t even play Free Cell. There’s no button I can click, no fake cards that deal themselves out, no virtual shuffle sound. The only thing going on here is writing, just like the old days.

How disconcerting. Yet, anxious as I am to return to the 21st century, I realize that my brief plunge from the crazy graces of its technology has rendered me temporarily sober. I’d sort of like to stay that way. My name is Bob. I’m addicted to magical thinking . .  .

Robert Koehler is an award-winning, Chicago-based journalist and nationally syndicated writer. His new book, Courage Grows Strong at the Wound (Xenos Press) is now available. Contact him at, visit his website at or listen to him at Voices of Peace radio.