Christmas is a good time to think about the impact of technology on life. Every Christmas there is a new iPod and a new xBox or perhaps a new Razr or HDTV. But because Christmas is a period of time defined by marketing and sales, it also lets us know, prima facie, what drove the technology behind the latest iBox or xPod or fNut: it wasn’t innovation and improvement: it was Christmas.
I suppose being in historic preservation gives you an excuse for creeping Luddism, but it is not a role I embrace wholeheartedly. I am always stung by the accusation of nostalgia, because as a historian I KNOW that the good old days weren’t and that every period in human history has been labeled as the worst of times. I love the technology that allows me to write this on the L, the technology that allows me to see through soft plastic lenses and buy things with a piece of magnetized plastic. There is wonder and the inklings of witnessing evolution at work when you watch teens multi-task on a range of electronic devices. I don’t want to be an old fogey any more than I want to be “nostalgic.” But maybe it gives me an insight into where innovation ends and hype begins.
The reality of this struck me when trying to label Christmas cards. For years we have kept an Excel document with about 150 names, addresses, telephone numbers. This was a simple thing to convert to labels but in the last year the software changed and it is no longer a simple thing. Unable to intuit it, I went online and got some lovely step-by-step (I think there were 12 steps – no joke) instructions on how to do it – which still didn’t work. After wasting 45 minutes I realized that I could cut my losses and write all of the addresses. I am sure another 45 minutes or an hour would have solved it, but then I would have spent even more time on this simple task than the seemingly neolithic act of writing all of them. Wasn’t technology supposed to make it easier, or at least faster? Because it didn’t.
The old saw was: give a man a fish and he eats for a day; teach him to fish and he eats for a lifetime. That must now be amended: teach a man to fish and he eats until next Christmas, when he will need to take a 8-hour course in the new fishing software if he doesn’t want to starve to death.