The Automation Demon

From the rotary telephone in my dorm room, I spun the longest digit–the “O.” I waited. The operator came on the line, and I explained that I wanted to place a collect call to my parents’ home. It was 7:30 p.m. on the second Sunday of the month in 1980. 60 Minutes wasn’t on for another half hour yet, so my timing was good. I heard my mom answer and accept the charges. We began talking before the operator even left the line. Grandma was next. She asked if I was staying warm enough. It was April. I assured her I was. My sister got on and my dad picked up the line upstairs. The three of us talked about the Cleveland Indians, and Dad asked if I had enough money. I assured him I did. Mom got back on and asked the mom questions, and said she’d be sending a $20 bill, some cans of soup, boxes of macaroni, etc. I thanked her and said I would talk to them in two weeks, same time. I hung up energized by the love of my family. It was nice my grandparents came over every other Sunday to talk to me at college. They, too, hung up feeling good about things. The kid sounded like he was doing OK.

A Different World

I have a son in college now. Sometimes on his way to class, he text-messages me from his cell phone directly to my computer. That’s rather nice. I like hearing how he’s doing. As an athlete, he is in the gym most evenings. The other day, he squatted a tremendous amount of weight in his workout and sent a picture to my wife’s cell phone (I still refuse to carry one), showing the impressive stack of weights. He was standing next to it, giving the “thumbs up” sign, smiling at the camera: full story with pictures, certainly no need to write a letter home. That evening I pulled his bank account up online. He’s been spending fairly conservatively, but I thought it best to tuck a few more bucks in there. I transferred him some funds from my account–all online. I got a text message later that week; he thanked me for the money. He had written a report in his senior year of high school about nutrition and wanted to reference it in another report he was doing at college. I found it in his room at home, scanned it, and sent it as an attachment to his return e-mail. Sometimes when the weather is bad, my wife calls to see if it is bad where he is. Since they both have the same cell provider, there is no charge for the call. It’s like he’s right down the street.

All good uses of automation, right? I mean, we have him covered on just about everything, no? If there was a family emergency, he would know in a minute. How can you beat that? If it’s all so good, why do I feel conflicted? Am I just some Old World curmudgeon, or is there a reason? Hold that thought.

The Electronic Age

My 10 year old remembered last night that a special program was going to be on TV, but the program was already half over. We ran to the TV and saw the last 20 minutes. When it was finished, he went to the video shelf and brought down the DVD of the same show that he received for his birthday last year. “Now can we watch the first half?” he asked. That was very resourceful, and it was great to see the whole program, but again, I felt something was missing. I remember when my sisters and I coveted the TV guide around Christmas, and drew a large chart as to when each special program was airing. As I recall, the anticipation was almost as good as the show.

Maybe anticipation is some of what’s missing. Is it good to always know we have the security of a backup system–wherever we go? Does that make us more careless, or even (stay with me here, folks) less independent? In high school, I kept a bike in the back of my junky truck so whenever I broke down (which was often), I could get home. Today, we have the cell phone, AAA, and a helicopter airlift in the event of an injury. Why check the oil? If the engine seizes, we call a number and someone comes and gets us, tows the car away, and within 30 minutes we are at home on the couch watching HBO.

The Bottom Line

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