Milbank: Going haywire on a cloud

Washington PostApril 19, 2014 

20120706 Lost in the cloud

TODD — MCT

I missed my brother’s anniversary last week. But I have a very 21st-century excuse: I lost it in the cloud.

I discovered this the next day when my sister-in-law mentioned they had been out to dinner to celebrate their 15th.

I thumbed to April 11 in my phone’s calendar, where I’m certain I had entered the occasion years ago: Nothing. I went to July and checked both of their birthdays: Gone. My 13-year-old nephew’s birthday had vanished, but oddly, my 10-year-old nephew’s birthday remained.

For years, I had been diligent about recording special occasions in my electronic calendars and sending out greetings to friends and family. I don’t know exactly how, but at some point in the last year it all went haywire.

I sent birthday wishes to my friend Mark last year on May 8. “I truly appreciate the sentiments,” he replied. “My birthday was April 7.”

Other friends’ birthdays suddenly were listed on two subsequent days, as if they were 48-hour celebrations. Then there was my friend Steve. His birthday in my calendar is listed as March 18, and also March 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25, 26, 27, 28, 29, 30 and 31.

Poor Steve is aging twice as fast as my dog.

The cause of this may well be user error. Somehow, in merging my PalmPilot and BlackBerry calendars with Lotus Notes, Gmail, Outlook and my various iPhones and iOS versions, one device must have overridden all the others, omitting crucial dates. I’d ask The Washington Post’s IT department to help, but it has enough to do keeping the newspaper publishing without retrieving my brother’s anniversary.

While my calendar entries disappear, somebody or something — Apple? Google? Microsoft? — is putting unwanted dates in my calendar. Does Outlook suppose I wouldn’t know April 15 is tax day, or that New Year’s Day falls on Jan. 1?

This is, of course, just one of many ways in which the very technology that is supposed to connect us leaves us more disconnected. Facebook lets us keep track of friends’ birthdays, but because I got some bad advice when I joined Facebook years ago (before Facebook had “followers”), I accepted thousands of “friend” requests from people I don’t actually know. Now I have thousands of “friends” I couldn’t pick out of a lineup, making it messy to keep track of real ones.

For me, the bigger problem may be that I rely on technology so much that it lets me forget the most basic things. Why should I make space in my brain for my brother’s anniversary if my phone does it for me? I remember few phone numbers — not even my own. My home number starts with 244, I’m pretty sure, but for the rest I have to look myself up in my contacts.

My iPhone calculator has replaced arithmetic for me, and Microsoft Word now catches me making not just spelling errors but mistakes in syntax. I’ve been second-guessing my directional sense with Google Maps — even to confirm whether I’ve found the most efficient route to my daughter’s school.

The good news for human brains: Google’s directions are often dumb compared to my own. None of its algorithms or live traffic data can tell you how bad an idea it is to take southbound 36th Street NW to Connecticut Avenue during morning rush hour, as Google wants me to do. It’ll be lunchtime before you get through that intersection, and that’s if the cop doesn’t get you for rolling through the stop sign.

Perhaps I should apply a similar human touch to the lost birthday problem. Even if my electronic calendar accurately prompts me to dash off a one-line email, I haven’t had any meaningful contact with the birthday celebrant.

My friend Mark, whose birthday I observed a month and a day late, probably didn’t much care. He and I and other friends take turns hosting an annual reunion. We hug, eat and drink, take walks and have long and intimate conversations about our lives. These gatherings are some of the happiest days of the year, and Facebook and other technologies will never duplicate them.

My brother and his family are visiting me this week for Passover, the Jewish festival celebrating spring and renewal. These days together are far more important than the anniversary email.

Still, if anybody has a working e-calendar, would you remind me next April 11 that it’s my brother’s anniversary? Just call me at my home number, 244- … oh, never mind.

Follow Mr. Milbank on Twitter @Milbank.

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