Random Musings: Technology should serve us, not vice versa

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         Back in 1993, I wrote an article for the Chronicle’s VR: Virtual Reality Science and More page called “Science Fiction or Mundane Fact?” It concerned various technological advances that would have been regarded as science fiction or fantasy in earlier decades or centuries. We have made huge technological advances in the last century or two, although some have been outshone by others. The Internet is a big deal, but we probably wouldn’t have it if not for Samuel Morse’s transmission of a message over telegraph lines from Washington to Baltimore on May 24, 1844, and Alexander Graham Bell’s subsequent call of “Mr. Watson, come here. I want you” over the first telephone line on March 10, 1876.

         The telegraph, which was first invented by French Engineer Claude Chappe in 1794 (as the semaphore visual telegraph), has long since been supplanted by the telephone. To say nothing of radio, TV and E-Mail.

         But new technologies aren’t always better. Or even necessary. Take one of our current technological “marvels”: Facebook. It’s almost as if our society has developed a cult-like fascination with it. Some newspapers require people to have Facebook accounts in order to comment on their stories, and I recently read that IMDb is going to start doing something along those lines, if they haven’t already.

         Also, some “websites” are actually Facebook pages. The message seems to be, “you want to learn more about us and/or our product or service? Then you have to join Facebook.”

         No, I can decide that your company isn’t worth the bother.

         Having both a website and a Facebook page would be more customer-friendly.

         I’ve never had a Facebook account for the same reason I never owned a Pet Rock. I don’t go in for fads.

         For the record, though, a Pet Rock is more useful. You can’t prop a door open with Facebook, or use it as a paperweight.

         In a recent CNET news article, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said that in 10 years people will share 1,000 times as many things as they do today. I sure as hell hope not. And I’m reminded of a T shirt I saw up on Mackinac Island this summer. It read: “Face your problems. Don’t Facebook them.”

         Zuckerberg also said people who join Facebook initially connect with 150 friends. Really? And how many of those “friends” do they actually know? How many are people they knew— briefly— in grade school or junior high and haven’t seen since? How likely are they to have any real-world connection with such people?

         I don’t need Facebook to keep in touch with my (actual) friends. There’s always the phone, E-mail, a letter or class reunions. To say nothing of face-to-face visits.

         Almost as bad as this Facebook fascination is the strange need some people have to carry cell phones everywhere they go. And I mean everywhere. I’ve heard people talking on cell phones while in a public restroom.

         Really? You have to answer the phone (or make a call) when you’re sitting on the can? There’s a reason someone invented voice mail, you know.

         With the possible exception of the president, no one needs to have a phone with them all the time. Yes, I know  some phones today are the electronic equivalent of the Swiss Army Knife, but even so…

         Years ago, while eating at a fast food restaurant, I saw a woman out walking her dog. She had a cell phone attached to her belt. Yeah, maybe she was expecting an important call, but chances are she could have left the thing at home and let any messages go to voice mail. Or she could have waited until after the call to walk the dog.

         At Borders once, I saw a man and woman sitting at a table, and one of them was on a cell phone. If they were on a date, then the one taking (or making) the call (unless it was to confirm reservations at a restaurant or something like that) was being disrespectful to the other.

         In an episode of The Big Bang Theory, Leonard and Sheldon were at lunch and Leonard let a call from Stuart go to voice mail because he didn’t want to talk to him. That “violation of the social contract” upset Sheldon and it made for a funny scene. Ignoring the fact that it’s a sitcom and the scene was written to get laughs, why wouldn’t Leonard have just left his cell phone in his office (and guaranteed he’d avoid both the call and Sheldon’s complaint)? Presumably for the same odd reason why people in the real world seem grafted to them.

         I’ve noticed with some amusement that many people who use cell phones seem to have taken to relying on them rather than wristwatches to tell the time. Never mind that glancing at your wrist is less involved than digging into a pocket (or purse) for a phone (and possibly having to turn it on).

         As I understand it, wristwatches gained favor over pocket watches after World War I (seems soldiers in trenches and foxholes found pocket watches impractical). Now it seems some people are preferring pocket watches. Albeit of a different kind.

         You know, there’s no law that says you can’t own both a wristwatch and a cell phone.

         Yes, some people’s cell phones are their only phones, but they can and should feel free to turn them off (and/or leave them in the glove compartment (or the desk drawer)) from time to time. Back when landlines were the only phones around, people sometimes ignored them when they rang. Or took them off the hook.

         (Speaking of advanced technology, I’m currently listening to the radio series Space Patrol, and some episodes featured commercials for a “Space Patrol Space-A-Phone.” This consisted of two “walkie-talkie” units connected by 50 feet of cord. The commercials touted the fact that kids could hear each other over these sets, but think about it. They’re not that far apart to begin with. A conversation might go like this:

         “Hey, Joe, can you hear me?”

         “Of course I can. You’re only 50 feet away.”)

         There are some great things about our current technology, but I believe we shouldn’t let all these “modern marvels” control our lives. In the Star Trek episode “The Ultimate Computer”, Spock told Captain Kirk, “Computers make excellent and efficient servants, but I have no wish to serve under them.” Nowadays, he might have substituted “computers” with “Internet-based technologies and electronic gadgets.”

         Copyright 2012 Patrick Keating.

     

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