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JOSEPH N. BELL

Wake Me When Technology Meets Reality

September 23, 1989|JOSEPH N. BELL

Two things happened recently that made me realize I've probably lived too long. The world has passed me by, and I have no particular interest in scrambling to keep up.

The first thing was a piece I read in this section describing a new industry that manufactures fake eyeglasses. The premise, according to the story, is that eyeglasses somehow connote the image of intelligence, and therefore people who want to get ahead in the business world should wear glasses whether they need them or not. Which leads, in 1989 logic, to the production of phony glasses.

An optician and manager of a local eyeglass emporium was quoted as saying: "We create an image for them. They say, 'This is what I do for a living, and this is what I need to look like; help me.' "

OK. I can hardly wait until they discover that bald people are perceived as smarter than people with hair and an industry grows up manufacturing bald toupees. About the closest I ever came to this was wearing adhesive tape around my left wrist when I was in high school because it made me look like a jock. It also hurt like hell when I pulled it off, so I outgrew accessories designed to create a fake image when I was 16. I learned then that the best way to create a jock image is to be one--a lesson that people who are seeking the intellectual look by wearing fake glasses apparently haven't yet learned.

The second thing I heard about from my wife. She had taken the 11-year-old kid--who has just started sixth grade--out to shop for school supplies, and he leaned on her to buy him a battery-operated pencil sharpener to keep in his desk at school. He said that a lot of the kids have them. She didn't buy it for him, and I don't want to find out if he was running a scam or not because I'm afraid it might be true. Somehow the picture of a whole generation of upper-middle-class sixth-graders with their own electric pencil sharpeners is more than I can handle. I simply can't see how a society that has arrived at this place could survive. I picture these kids in the Army carrying a hot plate in their mess kits and wondering where the escalators are when they take their first hike.

These two incidents have made me acutely conscious that almost every day I get something in the mail or see something in a store or hear something advertised on TV that underscores the conviction that we are technologizing ourselves into extinction.

For example, consider the Orthopedic Pet Bed. The advertisement--underneath the picture of a pit bull puppy looking understandably melancholy--claims that this product "cushions your dog or cat with a thick, soft synthetic lambs wool or a two-inch layer of convoluted medical-grade polyfoam. The foam conforms to your pet's body for proper weight distribution and unhindered circulation. The non-allergenic polyester lamb's wool insulates pets from cold floors."

Reading this made me mildly thankful for the bubble-headed dachshund who lives at our house because I know she would drag the polyester lamb's wool out of the Orthopedic Pet Bed and eat it and then sleep on the bare, bumpy top of her carrying case. And $49 (for the medium size) would go down the tubes, which would serve us right.

Then there is the portable barbecue that "gives a delicious smoky flavor to barbecued foods--without messy charcoal." Seems that although this unit looks like a charcoal barbecue, there are really adjustable electric heating elements underneath the fake lava stones that virtually guarantee against burning the meat. So what we have here is a risk-free barbecue.

No more getting charcoal on your hands or shirt, enjoying the flavor of starter fluid in your meat, singeing the hair on your arms when you try to beef up the blaze by shooting on a little extra fluid, putting out fires as the grease drips on the charcoal, or the decision of whether to let the coals burn out or save them for another day. And no longer the delicious contest to deliver meat that is the right shade of pink in the center without being burned to a crisp on the outside. Automated dullsville, just to get a piece of meat that is technologically correct.

We also have the Call Waiting system, which Pacific Bell pitched to me in a letter the other day. The letter starts out: "Imagine someone is trying to reach you but your phone is busy. You won't know they called--and they might not call back."

They've caught my attention. Sounds like a great plan so far to me. But not to Pac Bell. They point out that the disenchanted caller may be "your daughter phoning from school or your parents from out of state or a friend with good news." On the questionable premise that you would never want to miss such calls, Pac Bell sinks the hook to pitch a service you can add to your phone that will go "beep" when there is a call waiting. If you're bored with the conversation you're in, you can put that caller on hold and check out the "beep." Or, says Pac Bell, "you can go back and forth between callers as often as you wish."

You can program this chaos into your life for only $3.50 a month.

I know that a lot of people who get off on technology--the same ones who accused me of resisting the electric typewriter, which isn't true--are going to agree with me that I have probably lived too long--and that's OK. I have no objection to their cooking risk-free meat, bedding their dogs down in lamb's wool or alienating phone callers who are put on hold. But I do fervently hope that their kids don't have an electric pencil sharpener rat-holed in their desks at school. If that ever happens, there's no turning back.

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