And Another Thing...
Jerome Shea January 26, 2010 Weekend Wonk
So, as I predicted in “Juggernaut,” along comes, electronically, my invitation to this summer’s high school essay reading, my ticket to beautiful Louisville, Kentucky. I am very happy about this. Almost happy enough to still the terrors that strike at my vitals when I realize that this means another forced march through Cyberland. Stay tuned. With luck there will be no “electronic signature” to contend with.
Have you noticed, by the way, that to get your package redelivered or your stove fixed by a national outfit, you don’t call their local people anymore? In fact, you can’t find the number for the local freight warehouse or repair center, giving “unlisted number” a new poignancy. No, you dial an 800 number to a call center located Lord knows where. The people at the other end of the phone line are the new intermediaries (gatekeepers, truth be told). They contact the local outfit (telepathically?) which, you are assured, will contact you within the next few days. This means that you had better sit by the phone, because you cannot negotiate an appointment through your voice mail. I’m sure this goes under the heading of convenience. (I rebelled and called a local handyman to fix my oven. He was at the door in fifteen minutes and did a bang-up job. Since we are always told that small businesses are the backbone of our economy, I was not just smug, but proud.)
It is a good rule of thumb that when you hear the word “convenience” or one of its cognates, it is not your convenience that the minions of XYZ Corp. are talking about, but theirs. If, indeed, the word has any meaning at all; usually, it doesn’t. Thus: “For your convenience, all our customers will now be strip-searched” or “For your convenience, these premises are now patrolled by Rottweilers.” Such a powerful, narcotic word, convenience. I long to walk up to the grinning manager and say, “For your convenience I have just poured STP into your cash registers.”
Technology is such a mixed blessing. I realize that that is a truism, but sometimes it hits home so starkly. These things start off innocently enough. How could the cell phone not be an unalloyed blessing? The world will have instant access to you, you can call for help if your car breaks down, and so forth. Well, ask any high school teacher what she thinks of cell phones! Or how do you feel about the guy that rear-ends you because he was gassing on the phone to his brother-in-law? Such abuses aside, I am not the first to wonder if you want the world to have instant access to you in the first place.
But these questionable improvements keep coming. I don’t know who came up with that electronic signature nonsense that I described last week. But I can easily imagine the salesman. He looks and sounds like Professor Harold Hill in The Music Man. He has a spiel that mesmerizes the folks at XYZ Corp. The future—a future of bigger profits and even more satisfied clients—blooms before them. And of course Prof. Hill can demonstrate the electronic signature feature such that a baboon could easily accomplish it (after all, he does it three or four times a day: he should have it down pat). So these poor fish take the bait, and clients start emailing them death threats. Who knew?
You could make a list of technological improvements that have been unalloyed blessings, I guess, but it would be a short list. The high speed dental drill would be on my list, car seats for kids, I suppose, and certain pharmaceuticals, but not all of them. Some advances really do advance us, and most seem to be in the medical field. But speaking of pharmaceuticals, the drug companies can now push their pills over the public airways, as we all know. Thus, we are hearing much more about intimate matters than we would like (“Mommy, what’s “erectile dysfunction”?). What tickles me is that they are required by law, evidently, to list possible dicey side effects. You can almost see the voice-over guy squirm as he races through the embarrassing list: “Hexigloppen is not recommended for pregnant women or the ambidextrous. Possible side effects may include dizziness, nausea, renal failure, impotence, incontinence, and hives.” But he always recovers and adds chirpily, “Ask your doctor if Hexigloppen may be right for you!”
Brave new world? I have my doubts.
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