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My neighbor is a high-tech guy, pretty successful, and the other morning when I saw him on his way to work he told me about the turn his career had taken. In his old company, which went under, he'd been involved in "chips that talk to satellites." Now he was into "chips that talk to antennas."
He laid out the whole past, present and future of the telecommunications industry. "The applications keep getting faster and faster. The cell phone is slow, it's just 264 megabytes a second, that's nothing compared to what the GRBs are doing. The cell phone could incorporate so many technologies - the IDB, the Telenova, the ACDM. But these are all going into the home computer, and the home computer only goes 264 turbobytes a second. But this is all changing because of China and India. In another five years, you're going to have a cellphone that goes 200, even 250 burgerbytes a second, and you'll be able to do anything you want on it."
I'd been having a problem with my cell phone - I couldn't get it off vibrator mode back into ring mode, and I'd been missing some calls. The phone came with a little booklet that supposedly explained how to do everything, but the instructions got lost in translation when I tried to follow them. I might have called the company for help, but I once tried that and never made it through call routing to talk to anyone. So I handed my neighbor my cell phone and asked him to fix it, and he readily agreed.
For a good two, maybe even three minutes, he pushed the little buttons with dexterity and speed. "Oh, you have vibrator and ring on the same option...this is strange...oh, I see...here you go, now it'll ring," he said. He took out his cell phone and called mine.
"Bzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz," vibrated my cell phone.
He laughed, I laughed, he drove off to work, and I went on about my day, confirmed again in my belief that the emperor of our brave new world is strutting around bare-ass naked.
All this stuff, the cell phones and computers and even regular phones and TVs, our personal, household appliances, the basic tools of our daily lives - people don't know how to use them. They may know how to use them sometimes, or use them to a limited degree just about anytime. But to be able to use the things of our day easily, to get them to "work," meaning to work as we want them to, whenever we want them to - no, people don't live like that anymore, not since computers came in.
Over the last generation, people trying to use the routine technology of life have to cope with failure and frustration that people never knew before.
UNTIL THIS generation, the phone worked perfectly, always, except for once every couple of years or so when it went dead, and then you called the phone repairman and he fixed it and it worked perfectly again for another couple of years.
Moreover, if you wanted to phone some agency to complain about a bill, let's say, you called the number and talked to someone who put you in touch with the person you needed.
No more. Nobody gets through call routing effortlessly. And there are masses of people in the world, especially older and lesser educated people, who can't get through it at all. I'd say there are hundreds of millions of people today who cannot really function in the workaday world because they can't succeed in speaking to anybody, anywhere, who has call routing.
The funny thing is that technological progress is supposed to make life easier, more efficient. The funnier thing is that everybody knows it's been doing the opposite for many years, that all our stuff has been "upgraded" with so many inane, absolutely superfluous features that we can't even turn these blinking monsters on anymore, yet the high-tech companies keep "improving" them, and the frenzied consumers of the world keep buying them.
And for all the staggering variety of options consumers have to choose from today, simplicity is not one of them, not anymore. You can't go into an appliance store and say, "I just want the old, basic model, no frills." That model is out of circulation.
For example, all I want from a cell phone is to be able to make calls and get calls, but the thing I've got now is like a cross between a home computer and an ice cream truck. Even when it's sitting in my pocket and I don't touch it, by the time I take it out again, it's changed screens and colors and is asking me questions I don't understand. Usually I can get it back to the main screen so I can make calls, but one time I kept pushing buttons and just got more and more lost, so I asked a guy I work with which buttons I had to push so I could make calls again, and he said, "It would take too long to explain, so the best thing is just to take out the battery and put it back in."
That's the only instance of userfriendly technology I've come across in three decades.
And why are there fax machines in the world? Everybody knows they don't work - they don't send things dependably, and if they do, the fax is never legible. Still, I bought one and tried to hook it up to my computer, and neither I, nor my technologically-adept wife, nor the computer technician we called could figure it out.
Once any moron could watch the TV program he wanted. All you had to do was press the ON button, turn the dial to your channel, watch the program, then hit the OFF button. Today you've got to know your way around three or four different remote controls that operate different consoles, each with its own flashing numbers; you don't watch the program you want, you watch the program you can.
When I was in my teens, I started out using a manual typewriter. Then, in college, I decided to try an electric one, which was a little faster, a little less laborious. Unlike my old manual typewriter, though, it kept breaking. My manual might have had an indistinct key, or the bell on the carriage might not have rung, but you could still use it. But when anything went wrong with my electric typewriter, it became inoperable. So I went back to a manual and swore I'd never buy an electric typewriter again.
And the rest, to my endless regret, is history.
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