Monday, January 1, 2007

The Open-Minded Skeptic

That would be me. Always ready to try the next new thing - but only after I've made fun of it, and teased you for jumping on the bandwagon. Deplore, then explore, in other words. Denounce, then pounce. I regret to say this is pretty much my standard m.o., whenever I'm confronted with something unfamiliar -- from meditation to motherhood. Today's topic is technology.

I'm not what they call an “early adopter,” one of those people who must have the latest service or device. I can never figure out how to make anything work, and as far as I'm concerned instruction books might as well be written in Serbo-Croatian. I carried around the 160-page manual (ok, so half of it's in Spanish) for my new cell phone for weeks, studying it, highlighter in hand, during spare moments. When it refused to yield its arcane secrets, I went back to the store and asked the salesman to demonstrate a few basic functions, and thus my phone and I have carried on ever since.

I have coaxed from it a tolerable ring tone and have stored important numbers. I can make calls and listen to messages. That's about it. For all I know, the thing also can screen previews of all the movies playing in my neighborhood and order tickets. But I don't want it to! Why can't a phone be just a phone? Why do we have to have all these hyphenated appliances? I can imagine a line of gadgets whose selling point is that they do one thing only and have no settings whatsoever. Good-enough gadgets, you might say. These do exist, I'm sure, in some obscure corner of the consumer marketplace. Does anyone know of a good-enough gadget, an easily mastered single-purpose appliance that has no extra features whatsoever? Something other than a disposable camera? Please let me know and I will happily give it a plug.

On the other hand, I refuse to give up on making new technology part of my life -- even if I have to drag myself to it kicking and screaming. My first impulse may be to deplore (see above,) but I've learned that it's all too easy to end up looking pathetic. I saw this happen to someone ten years ago. It was at the height of the internet craze and the Author's Guild was conducting a panel on the impact of technology on literary endeavor. Something like that. The technology-isn't-necessarily-evil position was taken by my husband. Representing the “con” side was a prominent critic, a lovely and literate man, who spoke so eloquently that I was almost swayed. Until he revealed in answer to a question that he still wrote on a typewriter. Game over, I thought. It was like being told that sex is overrated by someone who's never experienced an orgasm.

So now my motto is to at least try. A while ago, when I figured I was ready for some further adventures in personal computing, I signed up for lessons from a pro. Unfortunately the computer tutor and I were incompatible. He had trouble masking his horror over my document-storage practices, and he believed that there could be no higher goal than an uncluttered desktop. I called the employment office of my local university and tried again. This time I ended up hiring a charming film student from West Virgina. A freshman. He was perfectly happy to help me master personal-computing essentials that were exactly my speed, such as how to change the background color on your screen. (“Master” might be too strong a word, as I don't remember how. But I like the background color we picked.) And in his gentle, understated way, he made a very important contribution to my technical education: he cured my phobia of consulting “help” screens. It turns out that they are not, as I had feared, the computer equivalent of my cell phone manual. They do not whisper to me, “you are stupid . . . you are stupid . . . you are stupid.” They help, exactly as advertised. Who knew?

The Short Version::
1. If you need to learn something, hire a kid.
2. Try the Help pages. They help.

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