Thursday, November 23, 2006

Living with Technology

Nobody in our family has a Playstation 3. (Our youngest son got a Nintendo Wii, which seemed to be less chaotic in its launch, not to mention more reasonably priced.) I got some amusement from reading the newspaper accounts of long lines camping out overnight for the Playstation. The hysteria became unfunny, though, when police had to quell outbreaks of violence at some locations. At least one store in this part of the state decided not to sell the system on launch day at all. What struck me most about the stories, however, was the account of a homeless woman walking along one of the waiting lines begging for change. She was quoted as saying she couldn't understand why people would be so silly as to sleep outside when they didn't have to and pay such an exorbitant amount of money for a "toy." Cue irony.

So, I pondered, how can I use this squirm-inducing story as a blog topic? Well, how about the role of high-tech in our daily lives? As a family, we've never been early adopters. (A statement that doesn't necessarily apply to our grown sons.) We tend to acquire the Next Big Thing after it's been tested on the market for a while. I can't comment on video games because I've never played them, but I can't imagine that even for something I really, really wanted I would stand in line on the first day or pay above retail price. (Who ARE these people who buy "flipped" Playstations on the Internet for thousands of dollars when they could get a new one at list price by waiting a few weeks?) And I'm not one bit interested in HDTV. The cheapest television at Best Buy plays programs just fine by my relaxed standards, and quantum levels better than the sets I watched as a kid. (Remember that extinct subspecies, the TV repairman?)

Some high-tech products, however, have changed my life so much for the better that I can hardly imagine how I lived without them. Remember when missing a TV program meant waiting for the rerun? When you couldn't see an old movie unless it was revived in your town's theater or broadcast on the local TV station? (How did film studies classes manage, I wonder?) When missing a phone call meant hoping they'd call back? When you couldn't get money while the bank was closed unless you could find a store willing to cash a check? (Before ATMs and universal acceptance of credit cards, each of our military moves involved serious preplanning and juggling to avoid being stranded with no means of buying daily necessities such as food until our newly opened local bank account in our new city of residence issued us checks the stores would accept.) When there was no Internet to use for requesting library books, ordering postage stamps, transferring funds between your bank accounts, buying products your local store didn't have in stock, reserving plane tickets, finding directions for a trip, or getting quick information on any topic? I can't guess what stage my writing career would have reached at this point in my life if I hadn't had the Internet to seek out writers' guidelines or communicate with publishers and fellow authors, not to mention that most of the publishers that have released my books wouldn't have existed in the first place (since they're e-pubs). The very existence of the computer has improved my writing to an unguessable degree, because not having to re-transcribe a whole manuscript for each set of changes means I'm far more willing to rewrite. I can tinker with a sentence over and over, without having to decided whether a contemplated small change is worth retyping a page. E-mail is a great boon, combining the best features of snail mail (you can think about what you want to say at leisure and revise it) and the telephone (you can usually get a fast reply) without the disadvantages (postal mail -- often not timely enough for the situation; phone -- you have to worry about disturbing the person and catching him/her at home or waiting for him/her to call back, plus you have to pay extra to talk to someone on the other side of the country or the world).

Good grief, there was a time when we didn't have a MICROWAVE! And, before that, there was an era when cars didn't have seat belts, or any music systems other than the radio. Also, while this doesn't exactly qualify as high-tech, packaged foods didn't bear lists of ingredients and nutritional content. To cite a high-tech advance in that area, consider the bar code. Although at first it was odd getting used to not having price tags on most groceries, soon it became pleasant to be able to move through the checkout line faster.

And then there's the cell phone. A mixed blessing, some people might say. :) I carry one and would hate to be deprived of it, but I don't use it for casual conversation, and I don't keep it turned on unless I've arranged in advance for somebody to call me for a particular purpose. In my worldview, the cell phone exists to make OUTGOING calls. When we need it, though, we REALLY need it. Before it existed, you'd have to search for a pay phone if your car broke down, or just to call home if you were delayed or make contact with a child who had to be picked up from an after-school activity. (It's often been remarked that high-tech devices such as this make a writer's job harder in some respects. If the heroine of your suspense novel carries a phone in her purse, how do you arrange for her to be stranded with no means of calling for help?) Remember how expensive our first hand-held calculators were? Today we can buy a smaller, far more versatile one in the supermarket stationery aisle for under $20. As an electronically published author, I'm waiting for a hand-held e-book reading device that's as cheap, durable, user-friendly, and ubiquitous as a calculator.

What wonders does the future hold? Already I'm seeing TV commercials for disk-shaped robots that vacuum or scrub the floors. I wouldn't think of paying the current price for them. Eventually, though, the day will come when they're as cheap and commonplace as computers are today. Then I'll get one. Will we ever see housecleaning robots that look, talk, and behave like human beings? Would we want them to? If they appeared too human, we'd have to consider the ethical quandary of whether they deserved individual rights, and as far as having cheap, unobtrusive domestic labor is concerned, we'd be back where we started. And as these new conveniences enter our lives and transform from luxuries to necessities (some public schools, not to mention colleges, already seem to assume that all students have computer access), what is our responsibility for ensuring their availability to everyone, not just the middle- and upper-class educated elite?

Nothing terribly original in these musings about the advantages and challenges of high-tech, but hey, it's a holiday. :) Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate it!

1 comment:

  1. RE robots: Today I read a story about robots in the paper and discovered that the Roomba, the disc-shaped thing that rolls around vacuuming the floor by itself, costs less than $300! I had no idea they had already become affordable. So when our current vacuum cleaner breaks irreparably, maybe I'll consider getting one of those gadgets. I will take some convincing, though; can they really maneuver effectively in tight spaces? The article is mainly about human-looking robots and brings up the point that people tend to get uneasy if a robot looks and acts TOO realistic. Hence the horror induced by a STEPFORD WIVES-type plotline.