Newsweek

My Turn: New and Improved?
Not Necessarily.

Forget computers. With technological features galore, even my
toaster is too complicated to use

By Richard Todd
NEWSWEEK

July 30 issue -- There is a new type of macho in our society. It has nothing to do with muscle size. Itís all about RAM size, gigabytes and the number of buttons, bells and whistles on our technological toys. That, and the ability to use them and talk about them. Incessantly. It is "virtual" macho, and I am the proverbial 98-pound weakling.

THE YOUNG LAWYER in the office next to mine is completely wired. Palm handheld, laptop, the whole package. Paperless. Heís downloaded all the Rules of Civil Procedure onto his Palm, which sits in a special stand on his desk. His system is hooked into everyone elseís system in the office so that each person has access to everyone elseís schedule. Everyone except me. My Rules of Civil Procedure are in a book, and my schedule is kept in a Day-Timer. A simple system for an apparent simpleton.

        Routine functions for everyone else are not routine for me. Daylight saving time is an annual challenge; my teenage son must reset my watch. My daughter in college wants to send me an "instant message" about her upcoming travel plans. Upon seeing my customary blank look, she says with a sigh, "Iíll just call." My co-workers must help me with the photocopier, fax machine, scanner, answering machine and cell phone (with 71-page instruction manual written in apparent Sanskrit). So many buttons. I can barely even work the postage meter without assistance.

        My home life is similarly complicated and disrupted. I canít use the oven properly because it must be "programmed." My toaster--my toaster!--has all these hieroglyphics, and the VCR-DVD long ago passed me by. I donít even try to play a movie by myself; solo entertainment is for me a thing of the past. My wife, of course, uses these "modern conveniences" effortlessly. She watches as I fumble with the remote controls (plural: there are three), unable to even turn on the TV. Her look is not pity or disgust; it is one of total wonderment that her husband is so inept. She is constantly fixing the electronics that I mess up in attempting to use them, like a modern handmaiden taking care of a doddering old fool.

        Without question, advances in technology have benefited medicine, and thus society, immeasurably. But everything else? Bragging rights, pure and simple. For the maker, itís about having the product with the most dazzle. Computers now come in different colors, with exciting new mousepads. I canít tell you how thrilled I am about these new developments.

        Think for a moment. Does this stuff really constitute an improvement? Imagine that Alexander Graham Bell had invented not the telephone, but e-mail. And we used it for years and years. And then along came some Bill Gates type with a little machine that you could speak into, and talk to anyone in the world. Imagine the ensuing clamor--direct conversation with anyone, any time, anywhere. E-mail would be in the trash heap, next to IBM Selectrics and mag-card machines.

        The latest TVs are also ridiculous. Who could possibly use all these functions? On my "entertainment system"--complete with TV, VCR, DVD, AM-FM radio--you can supposedly record programs up to a year in advance. When would you need to do that? Are there actually people who, prior to going on a sabbatical, set the timer to record next summerís final episode of "Everybody Loves Raymond"?

        One last example of technology that isnít exactly improving my life: the Winter Olympics are coming up in Salt Lake City in 2002, and I wanted to get the jump on tickets. Naturally, you must order over the Internet. I tried--diligently--for hours. I couldnít do it. It is complicated quite literally beyond description. Once you wade through the blizzard of Web pages, you must download some sort of program just to obtain an order form. Then, and only then, do you obtain the Olympic Experience Package information and start the nine-step process to actually order a ticket. I couldnít get past step one because I didnít know my own e-mail address.

        It is ridiculous that I cannot set my own watch, operate the CD player on my car or even do research at the library. I long for the time when you had to walk to the TV to turn it on. I also remember party lines as a youth, when you couldnít use the telephone until your neighbor hung up. Now you canít get on the Internet until a million of your cyber-neighbors hang up. Some progress.

        So I wonít be attending the 2002 Winter Olympics. I probably wonít be watching it on TV either. I am sure by then youíll need to wear special headgear to boot up, or sit in a special chair. Instead, Iíll read about it in the newspaper. Iíll still have that, and my ballpoint pen and legal pad. And my dog Barney. He doesnít understand this stuff either.


Todd is a lawyer in Portland, Ore.

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