Lately I’ve been plagued by more than the usual ANNOYING ENCOUNTERS WITH THE ELECTRONIC WORLD and it makes me consider the state of our lives, dominated, as they are, by electronic devices that are more and more maddening and patently unhelpful. First, Marypat and I tried to book flights to South Korea in March to watch Sawyer compete as a guide in the Paralympic games. Exciting stuff, but the engagement with the Internet, trying to navigate the process to purchase tickets, turned into a complete quagmire. I admit to plenty of pilot error in this regard. If you make a single mistake – say, like saying there are 2 passengers, one of whom is a senior, it becomes impossible not to be charged for three tickets. It’s a long story with multiple chapters that makes me tired to even try and recap, but I don’t think I need to recap, because we’ve all been there, right? In the end I spent almost two and a half hours on the phone with a very nice young man in India. We finally decided that the best course of action was to cancel our original tickets and purchase direct flights, despite a price tag several hundreds of dollars higher. By the end of it, I felt like I’d actually made out like a bandit, the relief was so great. Hours on the phone with someone in India – really? What ever happened to the travel agency you booked a flight with? Don’t get me started on the AirBNB booking. Luckily Sawyer helped with that so it went relatively smoothly and probably only took us an hour.
Then there was the task of signing Ruby up for next year’s FAFSA Pell Grant for college. Once you’ve ground through the process one time with each kid, it’s relatively easy, except, in this case, when we got to the sign and submit page and it wouldn’t take the user name and password that I’d so carefully written down from the year before. No amount of trying to change the password seemed to help, even with Ruby at my side. Finally we gave up, called the FAFSA help line and navigated this whole process, barely understanding the accent of the person on the other end of the line. Again, close to an hour on the phone and it turned out to be some stupid missed step that made everyone feel like an absolute imbecile and, once we figured it out, it went through like a charm. But, by then, we’d avoided the problem for days, spent hours on our own and another hour on the phone to sign a damn piece of electronic paper.
Sure, I know, I come from the age of the typewriter, but this is our world!!?? We have to keep a hand-written list of user names and passwords and security question answers in the desk drawer because there is no way to keep track of that stupid shit. Then, every six months or so, we are told to change the password for security purposes? What security, by the way? Suddenly, all those things that used to get handled by HR departments at work, customer service agents, travel agencies and so on are our responsibility? We have to keep track of our hours, submit time sheets, book tickets . . . and, more often than not, there’s a service fee tacked on for the privilege of submitting online. I remember, for example, in the old days when we wanted to reserve a Forest Service cabin for an overnight stay. We’d call the FS office, ask about availability, talk to a desk ranger who would book us in and take our payment. Now, we have to log on to a government site, remember the damn password, search out the targeted cabin, put in all sorts of information, find out if it’s available, and then pay an additional $9 booking charge because now the process is so spiffy and trouble free.
All of this is presented to us as a wonderful and efficient improvement on the clunky old ways of doing business. More than that, we are told that it is a much more seamless and very secure way of getting things done. All of this is total mythology. Security??? Well, we know better now, don’t we? Efficiency, for who? Didn’t feel very efficient spending an afternoon talking to a room full of phone cacophony in India just to change a ticket.
Look at all the information we have access to! Look how we can find cheap deals! Look how we can contact anyone about anything in the world! Look how we can buy everything from books to vacuum cleaners from the comfort of our kitchen table!
Yeah, yeah, of course there are some advances that are worth it. Am I glad that I don’t have to type an entire page over because I made a typo? Sure. Am I relieved that I don’t have to spend hours in the library researching some arcane bit of knowledge that I can now find on the internet in seconds? Yup. Am I happy that I can email an editor or business contact and not have to wait two weeks for the snail mail to deliver a reply? Yes I am. But in the entirety of life, is this juggernaut we have no choice but to be hitched to a bargain worth making? That seems very much up for debate.
In my college classes we sometimes have discussions over the costs and benefits of electronic devices, the World Wide Web, and social media. Especially social media. Even for those who were born on the Internet side of the divide the price is obvious, the extent to which their lives are dictated by these devices is seen as burdensome. And yet, what are they to do? Can’t very well just hop off that bus and survive in this culture, can we? I know, I tried. I held on to that typewriter to the bitter end, until, literally, it became completely impossible to do my work. And hey, look at me now, Mr. Blogger.
What we end up concluding, inevitably, in those course discussions, is that we need to get better at treating these devices and services as tools. And we need to remember that we are the boss, not the phone. Yeah, sounds good, except that these things aren’t like the hammer you have in the tool box. That hammer just sits there, inert, waiting the days and weeks and months between times it’s needed. The Internet and the devices that run off of it are not inert. No, they are hungry beasts. They are expressions of capitalism that want our attention in the worst way. They nag us, they chirp and beep and alarm at us, they entice us, they wave frilly geegaws in our face. They make it all but impossible to treat them as tools, and to forget them between jobs.
I read somewhere recently that only the truly wealthy among us will be able to afford the “luxury” of escaping the electronic world. Struck me as interesting. You’d think that greater wealth, if you believe the conventional wisdom we’ve been fed, would afford us more toys and more access. If these things were actually the freeing, liberating, joyous toys we are told they are, then of course you’d have more of them if you could afford it. But no, the quote called freedom from the electronic world a “luxury”. The luxury of being left alone, of experiencing silence and simplicity and a lack of clutter, freedom from the nagging, beeping, distracting world we have gotten ourselves plugged into over the past couple of decades. The wherewithal to purchase our freedom from enslavement, which is what it has become.
Now there’s some incentive to make my fortune!