Technology is the servant, not the master

By now, I expect to talk to machines on the telephone, and I’m pretty good at making little speeches at them.
Sprightly voices answer, “We’re unavailable right now but leave a message and we’ll get back with you as soon as possible. Have a good day!”
Other no-nonsense voices begin with “Your business is important to us . . . .” It’s a nice message, but unconvincing. Nevertheless, I usually give a little speech.
I know what people mean when they talk about “telephone tag” and voice mail. I’m accustomed to people calling back when I don’t leave a message because their Caller ID tattled about my identity. And the first thing I usually do when returning home myself is check who’s been talking to my machine.
Now that’s a whole new way of using the telephone. So why was I surprised when I ran into a telephone roadblock last week?
To begin with, I dialed as usual. The first machine told me to dial the extension if I knew it. And I did. The second machine acknowledged my request and politely offered to forward my call.
But it was the third machine that demanded my security code.
Since I didn’t have a security code, I hung up and started the whole process over. But once again, the wooden voice refused to let me through without a security code.
There was a simple explanation, of course. The organization had installed a new telephone system and they were still working out the bugs.
In a way, I understood. But in another way, I was incredibly frustrated. For it’s the story of life at the end of the 20th century.
Telephones no longer work because they’re too fancy. You can’t read your mail or write a letter if the electricity goes off. Hackers break into corporate computers, and computer viruses get friendly names like Melissa.
Bread machines break down and VCRs malfunction. You have to know computers to repair a car. Video games are blamed for promoting violence.
And anyone who has ever tried to upgrade a computer or add new hardware or software understands the immense frustration when things simply won’t work.
In a time like this, it’s easy to wax nostalgic and remember how it used to be when people talked to each other in the evenings, and could always depend on there being oil in the lamp and wood in the fireplace.
Yes, it’s easy to get nostalgic. But the truth is you can never go back in life and technology is here to stay. Furthermore, technology has the potential to vastly improve our lives. Or disrupt them.
It’s up to us to make the right choices. And it might be a good time to think about Thoreau’s advice in Walden–“simplify, simplify, simplify.”
Technology can be both addictive and hypnotic. More gigabytes. Larger hard drives. Newer cars. VCRs with more options. Faxes and e-mails. Special kitchen appliances for every cooking need.
And before we know it, the servant has become the master.
So when it comes to investing in today’s marvelous technology, don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions. Whether it’s a computer or a rice cooker, ask yourself why you want the new gadget. Will it simplify your life, or complicate it? Will it free up time to use for more important things, or will it take time to maintain?
And above all, never forget that technology is a servant and you’re the boss.

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