At sea in a tech ocean


By Neil Offen

I grew up in an age of transistor radios. It was a time of limited technological choice—the transistor radios could get only three AM stations, and two were playing Ferrante and Teicher’s theme from Exodus.

If we wanted to look something up, we went to the Encyclopedia Britannica, which our parents had bought on the installment plan (a kind of early Venmo), and was sort of like Wikipedia but weighed more, and volume Tar-Vew didn’t have a hyperlink to volume Mou-Nyo.

Our information screens were limited to three television channels, all of which seemed to be showing Bonanza when they weren’t showing Have Gun—Will Travel. Alexa was not yet a virtual assistant nor the name of the girl sitting behind us in third grade. Sidney was still a boy’s name. We also had landlines, although they weren’t yet called landlines, because they didn’t need a first name since they were the only lines we had.

New technology was mom’s recently purchased toaster, the one with four (!) different settings, including burnt.

Today many in our low-technology generation are awash in high-tech and are struggling to stay afloat. Inundated by a plethora of gadgets and gizmos, we are overwhelmed with remote-controlled contraptions and multitasking thingamajigs, which, of course, can only be connected wirelessly, assuming you have the right doohickey.

In addition, we have the growth of AI, artificial intelligence, with bots like ChatGPT, which can do almost everything a human brain can do except explain artificial intelligence so some of us can understand it.

All this technology has insinuated itself into our daily lives, supposedly simplifying everything we do. But, c’mon.

We now have to program, or try to program, the electric tea kettle. We must fiddle with adjusting the sleep number of our bed even when napping on the couch. We try to access the house thermostat through our phone and when we return home, we find we’ve set the temperature to 91 degrees in the living room and it’s snowing in the kitchen.

Trying to buy a new car, we are intimidated by the dashboard technology display, which looks like CNBC updates on how the Dow Jones Industrials are faring. How can you concentrate on driving and cutting off the guy in the next lane when you are also carefully watching the digital read-out of your GPS directions, tire pressure, air-fuel ratio, battery strength, rear-end camera view, side camera view, and of course the satellite radio receiver playing classic soft rock and scrolling Simon and Garfunkel lyrics?

Even purchasing a new pair of sneakers, you need to get your foot digitally scanned, the data from the scan is fed into an algorithm, then it’s graphed onto a database, and then you are quickly told you owe $149.95 for a pair of sneakers.

We feel overloaded with digital data, pinged to exasperation. Many of our watches now don’t just tell us the time, they tell us our heart rate, how many miles we’ve run, steps we’ve taken, calories expended, how many hours we’ve slept. And (this is really true) my watch has the nerve to tell me I’m too stressed and should take a few deep breaths to calm myself.

Of course, I’m too stressed—I’m way behind on my step count.

Carrboro resident Neil Offen has been a humor columnist for four decades and in two countries. He is the author of the forthcoming book, “Building a Better Boomer.” His column appears twice monthly in The Local Reporter.

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