Is technology an ally or a sign of doom? E-mail
Opinion
Saturday, 12 July 2014 09:22

By L&T Columnist Rachel Coleman

Anyone who’s read this column over the years knows that conflict riddles my relationship with technological progress. I’ve lamented the extinction of the handwritten thank-you note. I agonized about the effects of people abandoning public libraries for online databases.

I purchased, then rejected, a variety of cellular phones: the chunky, brick-like device that came as a bonus when my husband’s out-of-town job required him to purchase a first mobile phone in a buy-one-get-one deal; the flip phone that quickly broke (plastic hinges); the slide-apart phone with a miniature keypad, which I accepted as a necessity for texting when our older daughter traveled to Boston at age 15; the phone I broke a few weeks ago, reasoning that the loss wasn’t so bad because it had a cracked screen anyway.

Now I have an iPhone. Not the newest one, mind you, nor the most expensive, because I like to purchase groceries and eat food.

As I drove home from work Thursday afternoon, a good citizen who doesn’t text behind the wheel, I thought of the tasks I needed to complete. I contemplated the electronic to-do list I had just installed on the old phone before I smashed it, and wondered if the stress of too much to do had contributed to the phone’s demise. I thought about trying to install a new list app on the replacement phone.

Then, I nearly swerved into the next lane as I pictured the phone’s sleek surface and realized it has no buttons. Or at least, just one big button. Technically, it has several — the on/off button, the volume buttons — but no QWERTY buttons. No keys.

The idea of a touch screen — a term that itself sounds slightly antiquated now, kind of like “touch-tone telephone” — seemed implausible less than a decade ago. Things changed fast. Now, many young folk have no idea what anyone means by “Touch-tone phone” because they have no concept of a rotary phone. In a few years, I expect the term “Land line” will have disappeared and my grandchildren will look at me in puzzlement if I reminisce about how phone directories died when the mysterious-sounding Land Line disappeared. They will likely confuse it all with something from Harry Potter.

Yes, things have changed. I have changed, too. Not so long ago, I was the woman who demanded QUERTY be part of her mobile phone. A tiny keyboard with individual buttons reminded me of a typewriter, another machine many young people don’t recognize. This comforted me as I railed against the disconnectedness that technology threatened to trigger.

Soon, all the kids would be crouched over their cell phones, staring, and nobody would communicate in complete sentences. Nobody would go outdoors, ever, and civilization would crumble while people competed in online games and send bizarre requests in mutant English.

Well, it has happened. Or maybe not. We hear a bit of broken English at my house, and the blue glow shines long after sundown more often than I would prefer. No matter what I want, the wireless way of life has arrived and I threaded the maze this summer.

I’m happy to report that despite an insane data drain on our household wireless service, something that has prompted complaints about slow Internet access from my nearly-adult children all summer long, my household — my family — survives. We do not eat as many sit-down meals as we once did, but that is not because of technology. It’s because of employment, or, in the parlance of those who look askance at technology, Work Ethic. When five people work at seven places of employment, and divvy up three, sometimes only two, vehicles amongst them, family dinner is a fantasy of a one displaced housewife. Suddenly, technology offers heroic solutions.

Out of milk? Call your dad, since he hates texts.

Need gas for the car but don’t have the checkbook? Call me at work, and if I don’t answer, send a text. Or leave voicemail. I will see it and respond.

Uncertain how to handle the question the mechanic asked when he called and you were the only person home? Your dad has a work cell phone for emergencies, or you can email me your question. I will see it right away, because of my magical iPhone and the fabulous free wi-fi at the college where I work.

Planning to stay later at the restaurant because too many of your friends arrived all at once and the waitstaff can’t keep up? A quick phone call to old reliable Land Line will wake me even if it is near midnight and I’ve gone to sleep. No worries, no punishments.

I’ll admit, I’m still disconcerted when the mobile, fluid nature of life intrudes on my traditional notions of how things ought to be. It bothers me when I wake in the night to get a glass of water, and find someone parked in front of the computer screen watching Netflix at 2 a.m. The weirdly varying mealtimes that unfold in the always-slightly-messy kitchen sometimes grate on my sense of propriety. Then again, I’m grateful someone else is willing to taxi back and forth to pick up the family member who gets off work at midnight, and drop off the athlete who departs on an out-of-town trip in the wee hours of the morning.

Amid the clamor and uncertainty of modern life with its ever-evolving demands and shortcuts, some things remain. Our dogs in the back yard bark when they hear my car puttering up the street. The garden I’ve neglected all summer is flourishing, because of my husband and the convenience of garden hose timers. Our family, like the overly ambitious cucumber vine that wants to climb to the roof of our house, is flourishing. They don’t always grow in the direction you expected, but they’re growing. We all are — and sometimes, I’m amazed to note, I have technology to thank for smoothing the way.

Technology is not the enemy, and it’s not the boss. It’s just a detail along the path of life. It may even turn out to be an ally for this old-fashioned skeptic.

 
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