Common Wisdom: Sound Bytes

In the month when cinematic achievement is honored with Oscars, I am reminded of the comedic brilliance of Jacques Tati. His memorable Mon Oncle is particularly relevant today, as much for its trenchant social commentary as for the hilarious misadventures of its star. Tati, as the unsophisticated Mr. Hulot, is confronted by dazzling technology which bewilders and reduces him to utter confusion. When I saw the film in 1958, I could not begin to guess its prophetic nature.

Trying, as a trial employee, to prevent further damage to a modern assembly line already gone askew, the inept Hulot hits all the wrong panel buttons with disastrous results. Visiting his sister’s home, the very model of a modern major domicile, he finds the kitchen, traditionally a cozy family center, to be enemy territory. Without warning, electronic sensors trigger cabinet doors to fling open or shut, causing Mr. Hulot to duck and weave like a boxer in the ring. Every appliance, every fixture, seems to have a mind of its own. Clearly things, not humans, are in control.

Ten miles away from me lies Silicon Valley, source of much grief in my personal life. I am glad for that colony, and the economy, that it is in the chips. I harbor no Luddite animus to trash its wares, hard or soft. I just wish, ardently, that technophiles, delirious with computers that go beep in the night, would have confined inventions and innovations to commerce and not invaded the ordinary life of ordinary citizens.

Some of us, of course, are smitten by novelties in the wired world and attempt to join in. Frustration strikes the consumer when he discovers that he cannot operate what he purchased. In the wake of Christmas, Disney Interactive (to mention one company) established special customer support hours to handle calls from perplexed parents who bought techno-toys for tots. Stating the obvious a local reporter noted, “As computer firms pitch their wares to the general consumer, instead of the traditional techie, the problem is getting worse.”For such wannabes I haven’t much sympathy. But what about those of us not techno-crazed, who are nevertheless infected by the virus?

Take computers — please. Computers are unavoidable and omnipresent. Why celebrate this when, because of them, simple transactions are now ground to a halt? Blood pressures rise when routine appointments with physicians are impossible to secure because — and here comes the wimpy phrase of the 90s — the computer is down. Humans, claiming impotence, in the face of ailing machinery. One yearns to yell GET A PENCIL! But pencils are, well, archaic. So the patient puts illness on hold until the computer recovers.

Even routine events like making a phone call become irritating challenges. I mention only in passing menu madness, that most tedious task of listening to a litany of options one does not need to hear dispensed by a recorded company receptionist. Last week, however, I made a personal call to Chicago and got instead a voice called “Tony.” Tony told me I failed to do what in fact I had done, faithfully following directory instructions. Try again, urged Tony. I did. No dice. Tony back, now chiding, “You didn’t enter the numbers!” But I did, Tony, honest to God. Unmoved, Tony the Phone Coach repeated the command. Finally, after a series of calls to local and Chicago operators, none of whom could figure out the difficulty, one sleuth suggested I press a number, any number. Done. Like Angela Lansbury in a triumph of detection, the live lady announced, “Directions only work on a touch tone phone. You have a pulse phone.” A what?

And on the subject of phones, what is one to make of a new device which fails in what appeared to be its primary purpose? The carphone seemed a great leap forward, a safety measure to assist a stranded motorist. Such befell my daughter along a lonely stretch of California desert highway. Confidently reaching for her carphone, she discovered it was as dead as her car. Regardless this appalling flaw, the proliferating carphone indulges chattering drivers, often observed in heated exchanges complete with gestures. Just what we need, a distracting accessory. The car-phone is more status than service, a menace to motorists.

To be sure, Detroit and other locations of automotive engineering are as guilty as Silicon Valley in producing “new and improved” technology which is more the former than the latter and threatens sanity and survival. The car is no longer a vehicle to get us from point A to point B as it is a marriage of Rube Goldberg and MIT. It is so complex that owners are required to plow through hefty manuals in order to achieve mastery. The radio in mine has its very own “Operating Guide.” A guide? Let’s see: turn on and off, volume up or down, change of stations. I count three needed knobs, no manuals, trees spared. Now that’s an improvement.

The more “advanced” the car the less the ally when you really need it. Who, on leave from the asylum, designed steering wheels that lock when the engine stalls? On two occasions I was nearly dispatched to eternity, making left turns onto main roads when the engine died. Formerly, the simple escape from oncoming traffic was to ease the car onto the shoulder. With “power” steering I experienced instant steering paralysis. It wouldn’t budge. I became a stationary target. Thanks to God’s grace, not Detroit, cars swerved and I lived to tell the tale. This invitation to impact obviously inspired the airbag. How can I complain about the trade off? Safety is compromised, yet bells ring if I delay in removing the ignition key and I drive to the dentist surrounded by stereophonic sound. Such a deal.

Phenomenal technology, which so facilitates global communication is, paradoxically, isolating in the home. A child is mesmerized for hours by electronic games to the exclusion of playmates. According to Ineco Corporation, 69 percent of personal computers are used for games. The marketing claim that PCs will create community is pie in the sky. When I called a friend, who had just received a PC gift, I was told she couldn’t talk because she was “On Line.” I replied that I was on the line. No matter. She was rapping with a stranger in Boise.

My friend is the latest victim in a growing body count of people attached to machinery for information and entertainment. So much data is pouring into homes that one wonders if the print media will survive. William Burleigh, president and chief executive officer of Scripps newspapers offered assurance in a Wall Street Journal interview that “Customers will still want, in addition to the Internet or as a supplement in some way, a news editor.” He himself admitted not having time to take in unaided the full information onslaught. Consoling words, but what to do about newspaper space increasingly occupied by reportage and technovocabulary unintelligible to most readers? The lead headline in this evening’s San Jose Mercury News shrieks “Cyberspace Invaders Infiltrate the Internet.” Quick! Run for your lives!

An era of unparalleled technological success has brought excess. I need look no further than this typewriter, only ten percent of its features which I need or use which, however, raise the price. I searched in vain for something simple. I could have more easily found the Holy Grail. Clerks told me of numerous such requests, but basic models are disappearing as options. Gizmos and gadgets attract consumers. We want the marvels of the business world in our lives with the notion they will somehow enhance them.

Everywhere there is an inflated concept of need, and rising levels of expectation. Vanished is any motivation to pare down, to be content with what is rather than what will be. There is restlessness to acquire more, even when more is not enough. Having high tech paraphernalia brings with it dependency. We are petulant if not panicked when the microwave, the answering machine, the timer does not perform. We can, now, have our cake and eat it too. Watch one program, tape the other. Nothing denied, no problem, a win-win situation.

While not angling to replace Andy Rooney, I think his skeptical take on products and promises, and how they influence and affect our daily lives, deserves attention. Call me a technocrab. Or, perhaps, Ma Tante.


  • B. F. Smith

    B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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