Saturday, December 4, 2010

Does Technology Free Us or Enslave Us?

The weather having turned chilly and cloudy again, Alma and I returned to the Westfield Culver City Mall yesterday for our walk. Since we were there anyway, we decided to go to Best Buy and Radio Shack to check out new laptops or netbooks for Alma. The Toshiba laptop that Alma had been using only lasted about 13 months, exactly one month more than its warranty, before dying an ignominious death. Why is it that any time I buy an extended warranty I never use it but any time I heed the warnings of consumer advocates and don't buy the extended warranty, the equipment craps out? There must be some perverse law at work in the universe. We saw some reasonably priced laptops and netbooks yesterday and are heading back today to either buy a new one or have the Geek Squad diagnose and repair the Toshiba.

Since we were at the mall, and since we are now using photography on this blog and on Alma's website, we also decided to see what was available in cellphone cameras, to see whether there might be newer cellphones with better cameras than the ones we currently use. It turns out there are, but they come with a major catch: to get one for free or at a discount, you must sign up for a 2-year plan with a $15/month supplemental data plan. If you don't want to be roped into a 2-year contract with the $15/month kicker, you must pay $3-500 for the phone. The data plans are designed for people who use their phones to surf the web and who do various web-based activities on their phones.

Neither Alma nor I use our phones for this. We basically require our cell phones to be available for emergency calls and we use our cell phones to take photos. We do not need to post Facebook status updates or keep the entire civilized world tweeted and twittered about our current whereabouts. We checked out Best Buy, Radio Shack and three phone vendors in the mall (Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile). They all offered basically the same quid pro quo: to get a phone with a decent camera (5 megapixels and image stabilization), we would have to sign up for a 2-year plan with a mandatory data plan or we would have to pay at least $2-300.

Why would this be? We were talking about this and speculating why we would be required to sign up for a $15/month data plan to get one of these phones with a good camera. After some too and fro, we decided that the reason the mobile providers can require the additional data plan is that they are marketing themselves primarily to younger people who are increasingly comfortable maintaining their online presence while mobile. In fact, yesterday, in walking the mall, we spotted several people (all younger than ourselves) walking through the mall and texting or surfing while walking.

This got Alma exercised: "I'n not against young people," she said. "And I'm not against technology.  But I am against people walking around with their heads up their asses because they have to be on the grid every second of every day." I think Alma laid bare the crux of the issue: why does everyone now feel they have to be "on the grid" at all times?

I realize we may be starting to sound like old curmudgeons, the kind of elderly folks who just dont' "get it." Truth to tell, I am misanthropic enough that I don't have anyone whom I want to send text messages to. When I am walking at the beach, my senses are fully occupied with the glories that Mother Nature has to offer. So I would not text or blog or tweet while at the beach or while at a mall.

I also know that  cell phones are great in an emergency situation. But have cell phones cost more lives than they have saved? Yes, people who are in car accidents can use the phones to call for emergency assistance -- heck, I've used my cell phone for that very purpose more than once. But how many accidents and deaths have occurred because a driver was texting or surfing the web while driving?

I sometimes wonder what that other curmudgeon Thoreau would make of our society. Would he embrace technologies like the Internet and cell phones or would he retreat into an even more extreme asceticism? Somehow, I don't think that Thoreau would place much stock in the value of constantly being on the grid. I suspect he would probably not approve of Alma and me each having a cellphone in the first place. He simply would not buy the rationale that one needs to stay connected while on the go.

In Walden, Thoreau wrote that we run the risk of becoming prisoners of our possessions and that our technologies may actually become the instruments of our enslavement:
The very simplicity and nakedness of man's life in the primitive ages imply this advantage at least, that they left him still but a sojourner in nature . . . He dwelt, as it were, in a tent in this world, and was either threading the valleys, or crossing the plains, or climbing the mountain tops. But lo! Men have become the tools of their tools.
And I wonder what Thoreau would say about Alma's laptop dying after only 13 months of use. I doubt he would take kindly to our consumer culture's "planned obsolescence," where repairing an old laptop is more expensive than simply buying a new laptop and where the knowledge and skill to make the repairs is limited to an ever-shrinking circle of geeky specialists. Thoreau constantly preached a gospel of 'self-reliance,' and in that context, today's world would probably have him checking himself into an insane asylum.

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