Saturday, October 6, 2012

The machines are taking over . . .

Yesterday, I wrote about how our things start taking over our homes.  Our belongings seem to do whatever they want to do.  Today I'm going to go further, and ruminate on how our things get us to do what they want to do.

I'm not pointing a finger at other people.  When I lament what technology does to us, I'm pointing a finger at myself first of all.  Time to 'fess up:  this past month, our family spent $400 on cell phone plans.

That's four hundred dollars.

Just to talk and text on cell phones.

Imagine that.  That amount doesn't count how much we paid for our landline or for internet or cable service, all those other modern marvels of mass connectivity.   The woman who claims to be a "Miser" is dropping a substantial wad of dough on things that remind herself of Captain Kirk at his campiest, and in all likelihood I'm going to keep doing it.

I could make excuses.  Excuses such as: this amount includes the total for 8 different people.  Such as: for one of these people, the costs included a new-phone upgrade.  Such as:  we get reimbursed for a bunch of this from my husband's employer, and the four daughters all pay for their share of their phones themselves.  But excuses only muddy the waters on this very clear fact:  we paid a heck of a lot for something that was a $0-item in our budget a mere dozen years ago.

My family is not alone.  Anton Troianovki of the Wall Street Journal wrote a blurb citing government statistics that show that -- even as U.S. families have cut budgets on areas like dining out, clothing, and entertainment -- families have increased spending on cell phones.  Just like us.

When I was in college, I used to spend 33¢ a month on long distance service (no joke); now I spend more than a thousand times as much.  But back in college, the telephone was a clunky black thing with a rotary dial.  (I tell my students to their horror, "When I was your age, when we talked on the telephone we had to stand next to the wall!  There was a cord, so we couldn't walk around!"  No!!!!!!)

The cell phone gives us a kind of freedom . . . but it also starts to own us.  That clunky black phone in my dorm didn't need a special charger.  It didn't need an upgrade every few years.  We didn't need a different phone for each of the four different people in my quad.

Modtern technology is greedy, needy bleed-y, and it makes those of us who own it dance to that same tune.

Modern technology is increasingly greedy, much more so than "old" technology.  Neither my vacuum cleaner nor my table lamp needs a special adapter to charge it up.  But computers and cell phones and cameras and even some lawn mowers do.  My parents used to watch whatever was on television at the time; but my husband's TV set up also includes has a VCR/DVD and other boxes.  So we buy accessory appliances to please our appliances.

Modern technology is also increasingly needy, needing ongoing commitments.  The cell-phone contract that 6-out-of-8 of our family members were part of shows that.  Sing the same refrain for cable contracts vs. a good old-fashioned pair of rabbit ears.  Not to mention, my "free" laptop computer from my job translates into the freedom (so to speak) of working at home, so we pay every month for internet service.  In contrast, the typewriter I grew up with didn't have any kind of monthly fee attached.

Modern technology is increasingly bleed-y, at least in terms of energy.  My parents' old television turned off (all the way off) when you hit the "off" button. But our television and our microwave oven and many other of our "smart" appliances suck down energy in our sleep, to the point that energy mavens shake their fingers at flat screen TVs for consuming more electricity than our fridges.  We have to go out of our way to say "no" to these beasts (buying power strips to power things down, of all ironies).

Each time that I need to pay to keep my technological marvels going, I wonder that self-same question:  do I own my things, or do my things own me?

You can sense the conflict seething within me.  Morally, I hate these machines that are usurping control over the finances and structure and energy of my life.  Yet I am the one who bought my sons their first cell phones this summer.  I understand the practical and social reasons for joining the techno-wagon, so much so that I hopped right on.

I just know that the fact that these machines are actually helpful (in certain, specific, particular ways) does not mean that they are Good.


  1. Cell phones really do exert so much control over our lives. You can be reached anywhere, anytime - or at least you're expected to be able to pick up your phone.

    It's why I'm leery of getting a smart phone, even though (especially in New York) almost everyone I know has one. I don't want to be able (or expected) to have constant email, twitter, facebook, whatever access. I don't want to become reliant on that constant access.

    1. Long ago, when you were just a pup, I scoffed at my old gnarly colleagues who didn't want to learn how to use email. Of COURSE they ought to connect to students and friends in the way that everyone else was learning to connect! But now, I find myself being the non-Facebook curmudgeon, feeling pressure but resisting it. I'm the old gnarly one now. Cell phones, I succumbed to reluctantly, and now that the hook is in, I won't dislodge it. But I resist further bait. -MM

  2. This article makes me so glad I am a rabbit ear, land line kind of gal, would not even know how to use a cell phone! It is like the Catch 22 where staying behind can leave you behind yet give in to the times and the more they own you in an ongoing slavehood...............

    1. When you get used to a convenience -- even an expensive convenience -- it's hard to give it up. Sometimes it's safer just not to try it in the first place! And you already have internet, so you're hooked up (and hooked into) technology in a different way. --MM

    2. They not only take from our wallet but also our time. 20 years ago when I was a kid we were always outside playing street hockey or ridding our bikes.
      Its been about 15 years since I've had to wait for kids to move their hockey net out of the street and I rarely even see a house that has a basketball hoop.
      Now everyone is either on the internet or playing their x-box.

    3. Money, energy, time . . . and of course there's no need to stop there. Health? brains? My kids were losing sleep at night because their dad decided to let them play with iPods, but only (a good compromise, he thought) at bedtime. When the teachers started complaining about lack of focus in school, the boys lost the iPods for a month. Schoolwork is getting back to normal, thank goodness. -MM