August 5, 2005

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

Fear and loathing in technology-land

Remember all those movies about mad scientists who invented creatures or devices that scared the pants off you? You know, like Nosferatu and Frankenstein and The Fly. Or the ones where nature went berserk and everyone besides the usual Armageddon fanatics thought it was the end of the world?

Well, guess what. Now we don’t need to go to the movies to be scared witless. All we have to do is use some of the modern technologies, often invented and understood only by relative “kids.” All previous certainties become mysteries.

My dad was enchanted when the technology of his youth produced the automobile and the radio and, later, television. He could work the telephone, power tools and even a hand-held calculator during his lifetime. It seemed to him civilization “had gone about as fur as it could go.”

In my case, when computers arrived on the scene, I figured it was either leave the human race or learn to use one. So I did, sort of. Although I can do what is necessary for work and e-mail on my machine, it’s still a machine and I am definitely machine-challenged.

And there’s no special education for that, only grandchildren and a few adults who know how to help us deal with snotty computer remarks such as “unable to establish a connection” or “invalid password.” Because, naturally, the new technologies come equipped with vocabularies of entirely new words.

The trick we need to know is that these new words appear under the guise of words with which we’re already familiar. Thus, “scroll lock” actually means “just try to stop me” and “escape” may lead to eternal wanderings in cyberspace.

Computers are not the only technological villains in modern life. We have timers for automatically turning on lights and radios at certain times of the day to discourage burglary. Or we use timers to run the water softener on schedule to avoid rusty laundry. Seems like a good idea, but when an electrical storm zaps the power source we’re awakened at 3 a.m. by loud country music, or the morning coffee tastes bad. Nature rules.

Speaking of electricity, how about when the air conditioning fails during 90-degree heat? We lived without it for many years, but that was then and this is now. And what about something as humble as a toaster that dies? What then, bread stuck on a fork over the outdoor grill? Bagels broiled in the oven?

We are indeed slaves to modern technology. Think of the terror we feel when a washing machine or clothes dryer fails. We get so worked up that you would think we were reduced to scrubbing the laundry in a nearby stream, as if most of us even had such a thing handy. Think about the hair curler, which saves us from lank locks, or the electric razor, which allows us 10 minutes more sleep in the morning.

Imagine life without constant connection to others through cell phones or the Internet. How could we exist without background music, chat rooms, instant messaging or surveillance cameras?

Well, maybe better. The one thing that technology hasn’t produced so far is time for reflection. We may be cool, curly-haired and informed, but to what end? Maybe we should reflect on that.

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)


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