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It's the 21st century, and technology now owns us


One day, I get home to discover a fait accompli: Knowing better than to ask my opinion, my inveterate gadget-freak husband is toying with a small plastic box hooked up to our once-virgin phone. Informed that from henceforth, we would no longer miss telephone calls, I wail on about how much I enjoy missing calls; how I detest phones; how phones have added nothing to the well-being of humankind; how phones are an intrusion into our private space; how phones only have one redeeming feature: They can be used to call an ambulance; how an answering machine was going to make all this phone-hating even worse; and, well, you get the idea.

Not only did all my protestations fall on deaf ears, but over the years, more elaborate electronic contraptions made their way into our lives. To be fair, you should know that my husband is a member of the generation of computer cowboys who wrote the code resulting in the Y2K hysteria. So when home computers crept their way into public consciousness, we (or I should say he) had to have one.

This was long before the Internet, e-mail, chat rooms, eBay and online porn altered everyone's lives forever. In those days, all you got from your Radio Shack TRS-80 was a bare-bones machine. If you signed up with CompuServe, you had news, weather and access to other CompuServe subscribers--all on a black screen with white text and, of course, no graphics.

Fast forward to 2004, and that analog answering machine and TRS-80 seem like quaint relics out of the technological Dark Ages rather than harbingers of the digital-driven, computer-dependent society we have come to believe--or try to convince ourselves--is a benchmark of progress.

But if progress is measured by ease rather than easy, we have not only not progressed, but have taken a huge leap into a leisure-less world where the distinction between work and play, public and private, have blurred to the point of non-existence. And while technology enables us to be digitally connected at all times, it does nothing to connect us at a deeper, human level--the only level that matters.

It's possible to come home from work, listen to your phone messages and begin to respond to one as you simultaneously log on to your computer to check your e-mail, just to have your cell phone ring as your computer announces, "You have mail."

You hang up the phone when you realize the first e-mail is from your boss, who also happens to be the person calling you on your cell. Because too many of us have come to believe our work defines our lives; because too many of us live in fear of losing the few remaining jobs in America, you don't hesitate to answer your cell phone. It's 2004, and technology owns you.

For those of you born too late to remember the pre-digital era, here's an admittedly idealized picture of what life was like in the B.C. (before computer) years. You came home from work at a reasonable hour. Most people worked an eight-hour day. When you left your place of employment, you left work behind. Your boss wouldn't think of calling you, not only because it simply wasn't done, but because he or she had also left work behind.

The entire evening stretches before you: dinner, kids, games, reading, radio, hobbies. (With the notable exception of an article in last week's TW, do you ever hear the word "hobby" anymore?) Sometime in the '50s, television enters the scene. Alas. The kids play outdoors less and less as they become the first TV generation, which, in turn, gives birth to the digital generation.

This brings us to a comparable evening in the 21st century. Your home is no longer a relaxed haven from the thrum of daily obligations; rather, it is a continuation of endless, and increasingly isolated, electronic activities. You check messages and e-mail, just as you do at work. Your kids, deeply immersed in some computer game, could care less about your homecoming. Your offer to help them with homework is met with cursory thanks, but they can get all the help they need online.

You don't have dinner as a family because no one has time to cook, and besides, the microwave enables everyone to have exactly what they want whenever they want it.

You wonder about a vague, disquieting emptiness lurking in the background as you make yourself a sandwich and carry it over to your computer. Your significant other is out, your kids distracted, and there is no one to talk to. But you're digitally connected to our brave new world and should anyone call, the answering machine is always ready to take a message.

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