In class last week we were talking about technology when one of my students said her grandfather couldn't use a computer.
"A lot of older people can't use computers," I said.
"Sure," she said. "But what gets me is why he can't use them."
"And why can't he?'
"Because he's afraid of them," she said.
Immediately, the whole class burst into laughter.
The cliche has it that he who laughs last laughs best. And if that's true, then I didn't laugh best, because I didn't laugh at all, since a lot of high-tech scares me too.
Why does it scare me? In two words - Culture Shock.
There are the people of Cyberculture then there's me.
Partly it's because I came to the high-tech world fairly late in life. OK, so it existed when I was younger, somewhere, but I never had to include it in my life. I drove ancient cars; I had a dial phone. I never had a T.V., and I did all my writing by hand, putting final drafts on a manual typewriter. I got all my entertainment from a radio and record player.
I survived without high-tech, and was comfortable with low-tech. Unfortunately, as a result, I became uncomfortable with high-tech.
How much is too much?
Eventually, I had to enter the high-tech world at work at least partially. I learned basic computer skills, but that's about it. I can type on it, surf the net, and do emails. Beyond that, I've no idea of what I can do with it. I also don't care to find out.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not anti-technology, per se. There's lots of high-tech I consider miraculous. Take medicine, for example. I wouldn't even consider trading current medical technology for what we had 40 years ago, if for no other reason than I wouldn't be around: I had a triple-bypass 15 years ago, something that was at best in its experimental stages back then. And let's face it: While all of us want to be a great doctor's patient, none of us want to be his guinea pig.
As for contemporary dentistry, versus dentistry of even a few decades ago? There's no comparison. Aside from the lack of knowledge and equipment in the old days, the dentists themselves seemed to have enjoyed pain - or at least enjoyed inflicting it.
Our modern cars? Well, they're far more advanced and improved than the classics. They're safer; they get better mileage, they're more dependable. I'm pretty sure they last longer too. Of course, compared to the cars of my youth, those great chrome-coated monsters with fins and flourishes galore, our new cars are at best a drab lot as undistinguished and indistinguishable as shoeboxes. Ultimately, however, flash and funk count for little when it comes to safety and efficiency.
But the car is a good example of my ambivalence about high-tech. Yeah, sure, in many ways it's better than older cars, what with its computers, and sensors and relays and what-nots. But what happens when one of those $26 dollar relays gives up the ghost? I'll tell you what - it costs about $300 in labor to find and replace it. Or if a sensor signals that, say, your Takahashi intake is clogged? Well, now you've got to pay a buttload of bucks to find out if the intake really is clogged, or if the sensor just had a nervous breakdown.
But I think what bugs me about the whole car thing is it's a red herring of sorts: We shouldn't be congratulating Detroit (or more likely, Tokyo or Frankfurt) because modern cars are so much better than the old ones. Instead, we should be asking why the U.S. refuses to promote the technology we really need, both financially and ecologically, namely mass transit. Sixty years ago, we had a fully functional railroad system; now we don't. And we're paying for it everywhichway.
So our modern car as an improvement? All depends how ya look at it, Bucko.
Another point to consider: How much technology do we pay for but don't need because the old technology is either just as good, if not better?
I think a lot of appliances fall into this category. I've got a blender from the '50s. It weighs about as much as an engine block and only has two speeds, but it's far more rugged than the new ones. And let's get real: How many speeds does a blender need? To my way of thinking, two - slow and fast, and no more.
Then we've got all the grinders and choppers. Yeah, they work, but they use electricity and I can't help thinking they're paragons of planned obsolescence. I've got an ancient hand-powered chopper, also '50s vintage. It's as quaint as it gets. It's also going to outlive me.
Edgy about edges
Two of the most worthless tools, in my not-so-humble opinion are electric beard trimmers and electric knife sharpeners.
Electric beard trimmers? You mean they're better than scissors and comb? I think they might have more appeal, as if they can do the job more easily, which they might. Unfortunately, they can also screw up the job more easily, since they can't be controlled as precisely as scissors and comb. They do come in a much more attractive package and with all sorts of groovy attachments all of which will look lovely in the landfill, I'm sure.
An electric knife sharpener? Gimme a break. Sharpening a knife by hand is not an esoteric and complex skill, like tightrope walking or cabinet making. It's pretty simple and can be learned quickly. In addition to sharpening a knife by hand being more satisfying, it's less liable to harm a blade. Further, I'm not sure you can sharpen a knife better with a machine than with a stone, and since the chefs and woodworkers I know never use machine sharpeners, that reinforces my opinion.
How about The Miracle of Wildland Navigation, G.P.S.? Just push this button and that button, and you can know where you are, where you're going, as well as how many paces you've taken and what your best friend's astrological sign is. Gotta be better than a compass and a map, right? Just like Bill Clinton said about "is," it all depends what you mean by "better." If your G.P.S.'s batteries die, then what? And ditto if either rain or tree cover or something else interferes with the signal.
If you got a compass and map (and know how to use them, of course), you're in the catbird seat. Actually, there's an addendum to this, pointed out to me by my Tupper Lake chum, numero uno, Creighton Fee.
We were talking about navigating in the woods using map and compass (Creighton's been a surveyor since at least Verplanck Colvin's time) and he said, "Of course, you go in the woods with two compasses, right?"
"Why would I need two compasses?" I asked.
He said, "What happens if you break one?"
There are some questions that warrant no answers. That's one of them.
But as for an unasked question that does deserve an answer: Now whenever I go in the woods, I always have a compass in my pocket and another one in my pack.