Sunday, October 14, 2012

Technology and Me

A little while ago, my friend Suldog posted about the first arrival of HIS WIFE'S cell phone within the previously cell-phone-free walls of their house, which provoked a memory or two from my own young life (which is not quite as young as Suldog's, but whatchagonnado?), with which I shall now proceed to regale you all, to the best of my meager ability. . .


Just to set the introductory levels for this post: my first job out of college, with my freshly-minted engineering degree (the minty-fresh smell of my diploma was an unexpected bonus), was for a wheel company, since I live in Michigan, and here in Michigan, 376% of the state economy is related to automobiles, and automobiles need wheels. When I told folks that I worked as an engineer for a wheel company, they would invariably look at me oddly, and ask something along the lines of, "Really? How much engineering is there in a WHEEL? You make 'em round, right?" Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha. How very droll.  Such touching, unsophisticated simplicity. Of course, we made them round.  Any idiot (hell, any sufficiently clever caveman) knows you make 'em round.  The trick is to make them round in stylish and interesting ways; and to make them light and strong at the same time.  But yes, just to forestall it coming up in comment-space, our engineering department took as our informal, in-house motto: "Re-Inventing the Wheel Daily." Just sayin'.

Ever since we got married in 1980, Jen and I have never been techno-gadget trend-setters.  Coincidentally enough, 1980 was also the year of my own personal first exposure to a VCR (even before we got married; not sure if it was VHS or Beta); a buddy of mine recorded the 'Miracle on Ice' hockey game, and a group of us, who hadn't seen the 'original' broadcast, got together to watch his tape.  Which was very cool.  Even as we were sitting there watching, the awareness was creeping through the far back corners of our brains that this could change everything, when it came to how we watched sports on TV.

And speaking of TV, our first TV as a married couple was a 12-inch black-and-white set, for which we still had to walk across the room and turn a dial to change the channel.  When one of our friends was upgrading their own TV, we swapped in their old 13-inch color set, which no longer had a rotary dial to change the channels, but had preset buttons for all the channels, both VHF and UHF, that were available in our area.

We got our first microwave, as well as our first VCR, sometime in the 90s (and not the early 90s, either). It was around the same time that it became hard to find replacement needles for our turntable, forcing us to finally make the transition from 12-inch black-vinyl record albums to casette tapes, just as CDs were arriving in the marketplace to drive out the casettes (but hey, at least we missed 8-tracks).  And we finally made the switch to a cordless land-line phone when our kids kept clothes-lining themselves on the 25-foot cord we got, so Jen could effectively talk on the phone from anywhere on the main floor (and even so, we still kept an old cord-style phone around for things like power outages, which has paid off for us several times).  You want to give these new-fangled technologies time to work the bugs out. . .

I got my first cell phone on a special deal from my car insurance company, back in the 90s (I guess we figured that we should at least get caught up with the waning milennium's gadgetry, before it left), when I started commuting more than 10 minutes (and more than 40 miles one-way) to work. It seemed like a good idea to have some way of calling for help, in case I got stranded by the side of the road, 30 miles from home.  The phone itself was maybe half again as big as a deck of cards, and weighed nearly a pound.  For the first 5 years I owned it, I made about three calls a year on it, only if I had a roadside emergency, which was why I got it in the first place. And I was pretty happy with that.  Calling home to chat?  Why would I want to do that?

Maybe 8 years ago, one of our kids talked us into getting a cell phone 'family plan'. Since, you know, that way we could always be in touch with each other. By that time, Jen and I had lived through enough grief trying to track down our kids, that we found the idea quite appealing.  What s/he didn't say was that nothing FORCED a teen to actually, you know, answer a call from Mom or Dad, especially if, say, they weren't where they told us they'd be on, say, a Friday night.  We also quickly became aware that our teen having a cell phone gave them ready access to more people than just their parents; and it gave other people than their parents ready access to them.  In fact, their ready accessibility to the parental units was actually quite far down their list of priorities.  One morning, one of our kids came to the breakfast table dragging his butt behind him in a wheelbarrow (in case anyone is in doubt, the whole 'wheelbarrow' thing is figurative speech).  When we asked him why he was so tired and dragged-out, he told us that a girl from school had called him at 3AM.  What on earth did she want to talk about at 3AM??  "She said she was horny, and asked me if I wanted to come over to her house."  As Dave Barry would say, I am not making this up (and I'll confess that there was also a part of me that wondered where the hell those girls were when I was in school).  We were at least gratified to know that he had declined her offer.  After that, we instituted a policy of collecting the kids' cell phones at bedtime.

The company I work for has legitimate concerns relating to 'industrial espionage', and for many years, we were forbidden to bring into the office any cell phone which included a camera.  Which, in the fullness of time, made it a bit difficult for me, when I became eligible for an 'update' of my cell phone.  I basically had to walk into the phone store and say, I need a phone that doesn't have a camera.  Which would elicit a pained expression on the face of the salesperson, following which, they would commence searching in various obscure cabinets and drawers, to see if they still had any such phones in the building.  Then, a couple years ago, the company came through and removed all our desk phones, issuing us cell phones to replace them.  Cell phones with cameras in them.  When I asked my boss about the incongruity of issuing us camera phones while forbidding us to bring our own camera phones into the office, he smiled and shrugged and said that the company couldn't get non-camera phones anymore, and that the policy had been changed.  So the next time I'm due for a new phone, I'll have a few more available options.

Working, as I do, in an engineering office, a non-trivial number of my co-workers are bona-fide techno-geeks.  I still can't get used to the phenomenon of walking down the hall and encountering someone animatedly talking to him/herself, only to discover, as I draw nearer, that they're talking on their bluetooth.  There just seems to be something vaguely inhuman about that. . .

By now, we've mostly adapted to our cell phones, and in many ways, we'd have a hard time living without them now (it actually turns out that confiscating a recalcitrant teen's cell phone can be a very effective disciplinary measure).  Our kids have mostly trained us that IMing them generally works better than, you know, actually calling them.  I'm not sure exactly what that portends; I have a vague suspicion that it's somehow pernicious in the long run, but it's what works for now.  Perhaps in the future, we'll all just have micro-chips imbedded in our scalps, and we'll only need to think at our kids, dispensing with any need for actual verbal conversation whatsoever.  But I sure as hell hope not. . .


  1. THis all seems suspiciously like you stole it from my techno life. I have always been 2 steps behind, now things are moving faster and I am moving slower.

    Fun post!

  2. eh, it's like i tell my Mom- a text is like getting a post-card. you know, cause she is so big on letters and post cards being from a pre-home tech generation.

    so keep that in mind. send text, instant postcard ... ;)

    bonus if they even read it, even moreso if they pay attention

  3. once upon a time i was the family luddite. now i am the one responsible for keeping the various computers up to date with security software and rooting out any bugs that sneak past it. go figure.

  4. joeh - Oh, I hear ya. I've spent most of my adult life putting together a really nice library, and it's starting to look like, by the time I die, there might not be such a thing as paper books anymore. . .

    Xavier - I actually don't mind texts as much as all that. My kids respond to 'em quicker than they do to actual, you know, phone calls. . .

    Lime - Luddite-ism is over-rated, isn't it? I mean, give me word-processing over a typewriter every single time. . .

  5. There is definitely some irony between your career and your lifestyle. My dad was an engineer (phones, not wheels) and he was always one of the first to buy techie stuff. I remember our first calculator and microwave.......monstrous compared to today. And our first "computer" that he hooked up to the TV and we played pong.

    Same man refused to install a phone in my bedroom, even though it would have cost him nothing, along with free monthly service. Still a bit bitter.....

  6. Great stuff, Craig, and I identify with a lot of it (as you know.) The first microwave I ever bought was for My Dad, back in the mid-80's. I worked at an office supply company then, and we got such items at a deep discount, so I bought one for him. He was thrilled with it. So was I. A baked potato in six minutes??? We were eating potatoes three times a day just because we liked cooking them so fast. Of course, not really the same as a true baked potato, but the speed made up for it.

  7. Oh, and Newhart had a line in his concert about cells. He said, what with the smaller and smaller nature of the things, it's getting harder and harder to differentiate between cell phone users and schizophrenics.

  8. Bijoux - Well, you might have inferred from my post here, that I'm not such a fan of teenagers having phones in their bedrooms, either. . . The Law of Unintended Consequences, and all that. . .

    Suldog - I'm sure there's some sort of despicable ethnic joke to be made about two men named Sullivan going crazy microwaving potatoes. . .

    And that Newhart bit is exactly how bluetooth users look, when they walk around in public, carrying on urgent/passionate conversations with. . . well, someone I can't see. . .

  9. I remember back in the day when we would drive down to the movie rental place to rent not just movies, but the VHS player to play them as well. I believe that the first VHS player my parents bought cost close to $500... hard to believe that one can buy far superior technology now for a tenth of the price.

    We are in the middle of navigating the vagaries of teens having access to cell phones. It's definitely an interesting aspect of parenting this generation.

  10. Flutter - Yeah, and the calculator that cost nearly $1000 back when I was in college, and was kept under lock and key in the library, eventually became a give-away for opening a bank account. . . And nowadays, calculators are about as common as slide-rules. . .


    "It's definitely an interesting aspect of parenting this generation."

    Yeah, interesting; that's what it is. . .

  11. having a tech-geek for a husband, you would think our house would be decked out with many more cool gadgets. As it is, we both have Tracfone cell phones, the pay as you go variety. At least mine finally has a text keyboard, but every time I use it, it docs my minutes (obviously), and I have precious few to begin with. I also recently logged on to Twitter to check it out for my Twitter-crazed teens who want to follow their favorite band. I'm still trying to figure it out, and it's somewhat like learning a new language. I'm starting to feel suspiciously like the old dog that can't be taught new tricks.