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Essay: Does Technology Really Make Our Lives Easier?

George Berdes

Joan Chittister has long been one of my favorite writers and always leads me to new insights and heights of understanding. Her most recent effort centered, of all things, on a bathtub. And what she did was hammer home an important fact of life in this speedway, helter-skelter 21st century. This is the way she put it:

“Just remember this: the cast-iron bathtub was first produced in 1870. The telephone went commercial in 1887. Just imagine: if you had been born in 1870 you could have spent seventeen years in the bathtub without being interrupted by the telephone.”

That charming, oh-so-provocative story rang the bell in my belfry that holds modern technology at arms' length. Yes, like all of us, I indulge (perhaps “surrender to” is the better way of saying it). Within limits, I’m a man of my time…sort of. Computers, TVs, cell phones, and a few other gadgets somehow or other crept into my house over the years.

One thing's for sure and contrary to advertised claims: they are not always my servants. In fact, too often they become my master. For example, when my computer decides to have a nervous breakdown it takes me along for the bumpy ride into Neverland. Its lesser spasms are also contagious.

Look, it’s not that I want to indulge myself for 17 years by luxuriating in the bathtub without being interrupted by a ringing phone.

But even the marvelous invention of the telephone offers another example of periodic growing estrangement. What has always been a love affair with anything that brings me into closer contact with my children and close friends is becoming the infamous third party in a threatening divorce. (You can also spell that “turd.”)

One especially annoying example is the service known as “Call Waiting.” You know call waiting, don’t you? You should, because you’re the one who waits. That’s the ill-mannered means of interrupting an ongoing phone chat, putting the person to whom you’re talking on hold and answering the incoming call. In effect, it says, “Hey, you wait! Someone else is calling me, and without knowing who it is, I’m going to make you waste your time while I find out.” That’s not my definition of manners or respect.

Contrarily, if for whatever reason you’re picky about whom you do not want to talk to, there’s that service known as “Caller I.D.” That’s akin to the peephole in the front door. With Caller I.D. there are no surprises. If you don’t want to talk, you don’t have to. The persona non grata caller is cold-shouldered without even knowing it.

Those are just two small examples of the technology puppy that has grown into a hound dog eating us out of house and home.

Notice, I haven’t even mentioned cell phones. Yes, I have one. But I still take my pictures with a camera using that old-fashioned thing called film. For the same reason I never bought a wireless-G broadband router, a Sony 4GB Video MP3 player, or a 5510 Cordless Desktop and Optical Mouse Combo. And while I have a lap, it is not topped.

Yes, I know - you’ve probably concluded I don’t iPod, text message, or have a strawberry…or what’s it called, oh yeah… a blackberry. You’re right.

Resisting such overwhelming odds may seem to put me at a disadvantage in today’s world and lagging behind the parade. But as I see it, entering the race and submitting to the whip of every new gadget puts those who succumb at peril. Going online and all that implies in today’s technological world can too often result in being hung out to dry on that line.

No, I’m not going to turn off or throw out my phone and sit in a bathtub for the rest of my life. But this is for absolute sure: I’m not going to get out of that bathtub to answer the phone.

Call me prehistoric if you will. Label me out of touch, passed by, blind resister, or any other designation. But please…do not call me after 10 p.m.

Essayist George Berdes spends part of the year in Milwaukee and the warmer months in the Northwoods. Many of his essays originally ran in a weekly series on WXPR in Rhinelander, and now appear at his blog, "East of Eagle River."