Dec 8, 2003  •  Post A Comment

If we can put a man on the moon, then why can’t we-put a man on the moon again? Which is apparently going to be a national goal, more than 30 years after we did it the first time. Of course technology has been bubbling here on earth for those same 30 years. It’s been coughing up cellphones that don’t quite work and CDs that drain the warmth from music and, of course, HDTV, the wonder that’s been just around the corner for about as long as a cure for the common cold.
As noted recently in these pages and elsewhere, HDTV is as much a vocabulary as it is a technology, and heaven help you if you don’t know the difference between 1080i and, uh, 480i. Or is it-whatever. I’m expected to call my cable company so they can hook me up for an HDTV signal, but they’ve never been able to deliver a satisfactory analog TV signal, so isn’t it logical to assume all I’d get from them is a crummy, inferior version of this latest thing in miracles?
Or I can spend $800 or $900 on an HDTV tuner for my HDTV-ready LCD rear-projection TV, but then I think I either have to go back to the ’50s and put an old-fashioned antenna on the roof or buy a bigger satellite dish from DirecTV, and who wants to pay money that, at least indirectly, will further enrich future DirecTV owner Rupert Murdoch, earth’s media-mogul version of Ming the Merciless, well-known ruler of the Planet Mongo.
Meanwhile there are so many other technologies to worry about, like how far I might be at any given moment from a T-Mobile “hot spot,” and what a T-Mobile “hot spot” is. My best friend has let a modern communications thingy called a BlackBerry become the equivalent of his youngest daughter’s baby blanket; he drags it along everywhere. Other friends proudly insist on showing me that they can take pictures with their cellphones. But why would you want to take a picture with a phone? Apparently to show somebody at the other end your newest purchase at the mall, unless it’s the cellphone itself. Maybe for that you could run into the bathroom and shoot into a mirror.
As medical science fails consistently to cure the worst scourges facing humanity, it attempts to compensate with preposterous pop drugs that don’t really address our struggling species’ deeper needs. Like Viagra, to keep men frisky, or Propecia, to help them hang onto their hair. Dan Rather is always reporting about amazing new developments cooked up in medical laboratories, but somehow they always face years of further testing before they will be available to the public. In the meantime we can copulate and grow hair and, of course, program our cellphones to play the theme from “I Love Lucy.” Yes, that is possible-at long last.
I hope I’m not becoming a Luddite, the kind of guy who wants to go out and smash new machines because they’re the work of the devil. Then again, there’s something to be said for that philosophy. Anyone who has been led down a garden path of telephone menus that soon became a hopeless maze has to have mixed feelings about technology and its marvelousness.
Infuriated one night by AOL flubbery, I was attracted to ads for MSN, Microsoft’s version of the service. I called the toll-free number in the ad and was off on an expedition that became more and more maddening with each new menu-a kind of audio hall of mirrors that threatened to be never-ending. You eventually invest so much time in the hunt that you don’t want to pull out; you don’t want to let it win. Hemingway wrote, “A man can be destroyed but not defeated,” but he never tried to get through to his credit card company to report its latest screw-up.
Finally, on the 10th or 11th menu and after making my 10th or 11th choice, I reached a recording that said the company wasn’t even open and to call back during regular business hours. God forbid they could have mentioned that at the beginning.
Many commercials are selling not only a product but the whole illusory notion of technological advancement. I still get a thrill from the spot that demonstrates a new kind of computer-connected camera. It seems that once armed with this wonder, you can shave off a sleeping friend’s eyebrow, take a photo of him without it, make a hundred copies and then throw a party where the missing-eyebrow pictures provide the decorations. Gosh, is that much fun legal? How did we get along without it?
And should I be worried that I haven’t been invited to a single eyebrow party this year?
Perhaps most sinister of all the refinements in communications technology are the computers programmed to sound like real people when you reach them via their 800 numbers. Many months ago, Amtrak decided to replace its dignified computerly voice with an imaginary little perky-pie named Julie, who answers your calls with a chirp and a squeak and a twinkle. She says things like “OK” to foster the illusion that someone, and not some thing, is talking to you.
Julie is programmed to respond to words like “yes” and “no.” The only word I ever use is “agent” which bypasses Julie and gets you to an actual, protoplasmic, talking and thinking human being. Of course there is the temptation to hit Julie with an obscenity or salacious proposition, or maybe an outright scream of despair, but she’d probably just report you to another computer, maybe one named Adolf.
There’ll be more Julies and more endless menus and more frivolous gadgetry and more cosmetic drugs and more artificial humans to replace real ones, all of it passed off as technology meeting human needs. Face it, folks; we’re screwed.