Thursday, July 20, 2000

Turning against technology

Essayists find many Information Age advancements impersonal, annoying

        Ah, the old days. Whether they were good or not depends upon whom you ask. But the days are long past when viruses meant only the stomach flu and a mouse was simply a nuisance.

  This week, readers take on the jobs of reporters in The Enquirer's Tempo section. Sede previous stories at
  • Monday: Best-kept secrets
  • Tuesday: Pet peeves
  • Wednesday: My summer vacation
  • Thursday: Technology woes
  • Friday: Kid experts reveal secrets
  • Saturday: Move over, Martha
  • Sunday: Obsessive fans
        There was a time when people, real people, answered the phone. In the old days, the post office delivered letters, not snail mail, and you needed a dime, not a cell phone, to make a call.

        The Enquirer wanted to know about your Information Age gripes. We turned the tables on readers, asking you to take over the Tempo cover for a week.

        These are among the responses:

Remember how humans sounded?
        Talk about being born 30 years too soon! Who of you can remember the “good old days” when you picked up your telephone, dialed your number, and a live, human voice answered and said, “Good morning, ABC Company.”

        Back then, there was no computer-generated voice saying, “You have reached the offices of Tom, Dick and Harry. If you wish to speak to Tom, press 1; to Dick, press 2; to Harry, press 3. All others, please hold.” Then you get elevator music, interrupted occasionally by “Your call is important to us. Please stay on the line and someone will be with you shortly.”

        Mercifully, some systems, after about eight “press this” messages, say, “If you wish to speak to the operator, press 9.” By the time I get to 9, and press it, I've forgotten why I called.

        Dorothy Pryse, 70, Springfield Township

It's tougher for guys to be guys
        What I hate most about computers, e-mail, cell phones, etc., is that technology is making it harder for guys to be guys.

        First of all, women are different from men; and I don't mean just the software. Women are hard-wired for technology. Female toddlers talk into toy telephones ordering jewelry, closing deals and asking why we did not call after last night. Male toddlers make gun noises.

        Women's brains are like computers: they remember everything and can spit it back in a nanosecond — especially the bad things we have done. Guys on the other hand, have brains like dogs: When we wake up, everything's erased like a magnet drawn over a cassette tape — which is why we forget to call in the morning.

        Because of these differences, pagers, voice mail, e-mail, faxes, etc. are used as electronic leashes. Reach out and touch someone has become reach out and club him over the head until he gets it through his thick skull.

        What women don't understand is that it's not that we don't listen; it's just that guys have the equivalent of a in their brains that protects them from potential nagging — a nag nanny, if you will.

        Like the hair on our backs, it's an evolutionary trait for defense.

        Tim Boyer, 39, West Chester

Paper never got deleted
        It's the big piles of paper I miss.

        Oh, I know we can't go back now. The Information Age is upon us. And data is moving at the speed of light, music is being transferred to us over the Internet, cellular phones are shrinking to the size of lima beans and everything else is beeping and whirring and crashing spectacularly at the most inopportune times.

        Paper is passe. I just miss it, is all. The files I used to run out of places to put. The note pads with incomprehensible messages. (I found this message on my chair once: “Bruce! Rolling along again. No pants? Glab!”) I even, God help me, miss the memos that used to pile up in my in-box.

        If you think the new virtual tools are an unequivocal step forward, I dare you: Call a friend and ask for someone's phone number. “Uh, let me check,” they'll say, “I've got my Palm Pilot someplace . . . wait a second while I call up the . . . no, wait, that's not right . . . now I'll have to . . . hold on, I'm pretty sure I filed it with . . . oops, I erased my . . . how'd that happen? I just got on the Internet somehow . . . good heavens, don't you know how many public toilets there are in Tokyo? Look, I'll have to call you back. I just got my phone stuck in my ear.”

        OK, granted, your friend isn't very bright, but my point here is that back in the old days you could find somebody's number really easily because you had it in an address book or calendar someplace, scrawled on a piece of paper stuffed in with a lot of other pieces of paper that fell out every time the book was opened.

        But they were always there, weren't they? You never had to worry that they'd vanished because of sunspots or an accidental bumping of the delete key.

        Paper didn't get viruses. Something on one piece of paper never magically transferred itself onto all your other pieces of paper and erased everything, did it?

        — Bruce R. Carlson, 46, Mount Adams

Press 1 to be really annoyed
        Hello. Your call is very important to us. Please select from the following menu.

        Hello. You have reached another impersonal department, where all our representatives are assisting other customers. Please select from the following options. If at any time you need to repeat the menu, press 4.

        Hello. Your call is very important to us and we really don't know what your problem is. If you are using a rotary phone, stay on the line while we try to find someone who knows what that is. In the meantime, pay close attention to all the new and wonderful services we offer. If you would like to speak to a representative, press 3.

        Hello. Due to the heavy volume of calls, we are unable to take your call. Please feel free to visit our Web site, if you have access to a computer. To listen to our available products and services, press 3. If you would like to pay your bill or have a question regarding you current account, press 2. If you would like to speak to one of our customer service representatives, press 3, take a nap, clean your house, or read a book. The rest of our staff is busy in the telemarketing room.

        - Mary Metz, 54, Clifton

Answering machines began innocently
        On any given day, when I reach out by telephone to touch someone, I seem to grab hold of a computer instead. I converse more frequently with machines than I do with people. Options and menus besiege me while humanity eludes me. Quite often I have the feeling that except me, everyone in the world is away from his or her desk, home, or cell phone at the moment.

        Call me cynical, but I also question the sincerity of the promise constantly made to me as I'm asked to leave my message. Gladly return my call? I consider myself fortunate to receive a reply. I would be down right giddy if it were returned gladly, never mind the “as soon as possible.”

        As I ponder the impersonal takeover of our communication system, I'm reminded of that horror movie of the 50s — The Blob. It started out as a harmless looking mass but in no time grew to mammoth proportions, rolling through the city devouring everyone in its path until the streets were empty.

        I think back to the Christmas when my son gave me an answering machine. It looked so benign. How was I to know?

        — Jane Biddinger, 53, Fairfield

High-tech means low interfacing
        What I dislike the most about the new technology of computers, e-mail, cell phones, DVDs is: personal contact with people. More and more, I find myself missing face to face communication. When I was growing up, the only ways I could talk with my friends or family were in person or by telephone. Communication was simpler then. Don't get me wrong, I use a computer, send e-mail and have a cell phone, and they are all useful in a variety of ways.

        It's just that this new technology makes everything move so fast, and sometimes I just want to get off the merry-go-round and slow down! I've started to turn off the radio, TV, cell phone, and computer to just be quiet and enjoy the silence. Sometimes, I'm jealous of those who live in quiet places in the country; off the beaten path, away from anything that is remotely “high tech.”

        A few years ago, I went to Northern Michigan for vacation. I spent two weeks in a cottage on Lake Michigan with plenty of time to reflect, take walks, talk and laugh with family, listen to waves and see gorgeous blue skies, etc. I felt so at peace there because I finally took some time to appreciate my surroundings and the people that I love. No technology in the world can measure up to my wonderful memories from that vacation.

        — Mary Pat Hagerty, 35, Hyde Park

Technology: It's a curse
        Why do people not gather in the yard or on a porch? Technology, starting with television and air conditioning, is part of the answer.

        A front porch was an invitation to visit, and a porch swing made an invitation more irrestible.

        Those were the days when you could see men listening to ball games on portable radios, and women shelling peas and snapping beans.

        At night, neighbors would visit and enjoy cold drinks or bowls of ice cream. The kids would play on the sidewalks.

        It was a gentle, slower time with fewer outside organized activities. A time, to watch fireflies and sometimes spot an owl in a tree.

        — Anne Anders, Dublin, Ohio

Software changes happen too fast
        When I started a temporary administrative assignment about two years ago in suburban Atlanta, I knew that I would be using such Microsoft packages as PowerPoint, Word, and Excel. The agency which, as a temporary employee, I was representing had tested me on those software packages, and I had tested well. I met the client, feeling well qualified in my software skills until she asked me the following question.

        “How comfortable are you with PowerPoint?”

        It was not so much the question that bothered me as it was the reason for the question. She pointed out that although she, herself, tested well on PowerPoint, she did not quite feel comfortable with it. In her estimation, the test did not cover enough ground to evaluate a person's software competence adequately.

        The more I have seen of software packages, the more I can see her point (and my pet peeve). Computer packages are “improving” so thoroughly that a user can never be very comfortable with them. Can the latest tests help users to keep up with the cyber changes? It is hard to say. Until someone can corral and tame such “runaway software,” thank God for help menus.

        Barbara Johnson, 40, Hamilton


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