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From high tech to low dreck

September 11, 2009

For the past 35 years I've begun my classes with pleasant, meaningless chit-chat - "How ya doin?" Anyone got something interesting to share?" "Wanna buy a duck?" - happy hokum, the calm before the storm, as it were.

But no more.

Now I begin each class with the same sentence: "OK, turn 'em off and put 'em away."

The "em," if you don't know, is cell phones.

I'm not opposed to cell phones, per se, but I believe they've got no place in a classroom - unless you think a classroom is a place to listen to endless ring tones or to watch everyone try to sneak a quick text (which they will inevitably do if their cell phones are within easy reach).

My recent dealings with cell phones got me thinking about technology, about the place it occupies in our lives, the place it should occupy, and the place it should not occupy.

While I'm a low-tech kind of guy, I am not a Luddite. Instead, I believe technology should improve my quality of life while not costing too much in money, psyche and environmental impact.

So what makes a technology "good"? It's not an easy question to answer, since no matter how beneficial any technology is, it also has its detriments.

Take medicine, for example. You'd have to be either completely foolish or downright suicidal to want to return to the medicine of earlier eras, simply because much of it was painful, ineffective or dangerous. Today we control or cure diseases that 40 years ago we couldn't even diagnose. And as far as pain goes, due to all the improvements in analgesics, we'll never suffer the agonies of our forebears.

But as good as that is, there's a big downside, namely we've extended the lifespan so long that Alzheimer's, rare a few decades ago, has become a contemporary plague. Moreover, in the past, being old and bedridden almost inevitably led to a fairly quick and merciful death from pneumonia, referred to as "The Old Man's Friend." Now, unfortunately, we can be - and are - kept alive in a netherworld of helplessness long enough to drain an entire family's resources, both financial and emotional.

So as good as the good things are about modern medicine, in contrast, the bad things can seem horrific. And since we can't change them, we can only accept them - something most of us aren't very good at.

What do we drive that also drives us?

Another double-edged sword of technology? The car.

Today's cars are so technologically advanced, we almost never experience the hassles that in The Good Old Days were commonplace. Today's cars run more smoothly and trouble-free, get better mileage, and are a lot safer and less polluting. Nonetheless, if some little computer chip deep within that mysterious labyrinth under the hood goes even a little off-kilter, it can K.O. your car quicker than you can say, "Tow truck." In the old days, precisely because the engines were so much less sophisticated, their troubles could often be diagnosed and cured roadside - at least enough to get them to limp back home under their own steam.

But all this begs the question of why we need cars in the first place. And we need them only because we have lousy mass transportation - a technology we darn well should have. If this were a European country and we wanted to go anywhere, every day there'd be buses or trains aplenty to take us there. But here? Say we wanted to go from here to Burlington, by bus, the only way we could do it would be by way of Sandusky, Ohio, or some such. Our lack of a decent mass transit system is something that makes us unique among developed countries; it's also something that should make us utterly ashamed.

And speaking of cars and technology: A brilliant automobile technology is the electric window. It's not brilliant because of its ease, effectiveness or efficiency, because ultimately, compared to the old hand-crank window, it's none of those things. No, it's brilliant because it's a great scam and we don't even realize it.

Dig this: Who of sound body needs an electric window in the first place? And how many of us would want one if we realized how much they tack onto the vehicle's cost without appearing to? I mean, if it's standard on the car, who pays for all the belts, motors and other doo-dads that run the things? You, the consumer, that's who.

And better yet (at least from the manufacturers' and dealers' perspectives), what if a window breaks down (which indeed they do - something the old roll-ups almost never did)? Well, in that case, you're "lucky" because the electric windows can be repaired but only for a king's ransom.

How do I know this? Because my driver's side window died and the estimates to fix it were in the $400 range. Luckily, it died while closed, so I did what any true blue Adirondack lad would: I duct-taped it at the top and said to hell with it. Sure, now I've got to open my door at tollbooths and police checkpoints, but I haven't found a toll booth operator or cop who hasn't gotten a kick out of it.

When it comes to absurd technologies, the list is endless, but some of my favorites are electric carving knives and pencil sharpeners, and of course, leaf blowers. Not only are they no more effective or efficient than the manual technology they replace, but they consume more energy, are more prone to irreparable breakdown and are doomed to the landfill at some point in the not-too-distant future.

And speaking of landfills: Did you ever wonder how many fewer problems we'd have with them if we weren't a nation of disposable everything - from pens to razors, from shoes to flashlights?

Ultimately relying on high technologies is like relying on natural beauty: Everything's great while it's there, but once it's gone, you better be sure you've got something substantial to replace it.



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