Riding at breakneck speed.
On the windowsill above the gas fire sits a surprisingly heavy square box. Its back is dirty, thick plastic; its battered and much-dented front is metallic, with rows of tiny ridges and microscopic holes creating a nubby texture if you run your hand across it. A leather strap is buckled into the top for ease of carry, in front of a retractable metal antenna. When the antenna is fully outstretched above the squat rectangle, it looks comical. In the top third of the box’s face, a vertical orange needle moves across the rows of numbers denoting frequency scales. You move the needle with a metal knob. There are four knobs in total, and a switch, and a few helpful legends: am/fm, volume, and, in neat, raised letters, general electric.
This is the family radio. It is at least fifty years old. My mother remembers her family listening to it after dinner; I remember sitting on the porch, hearing the Phillies playing in the background, summer after summer. The other night we turned it on again to catch the first game of the National League Championship Series. A few of the technologically savvy younger generation were home, and at first we tried to get the game on the big-screen Internet-enabled TV. Something was wrong with the pirating site, which is a tough situation for appropriately-directed complaint filing. You could get the game on the MLB app, but the app wants to know your cable provider, which precise lack was the reason we were on the app. Hulu was streaming it, apparently. We tried to sign up for a free trial that we could cancel before they’d get around to billing us. (This is not taking advantage of the free option, because we would have forgotten to cancel; if anything, Hulu is taking advantage of our rosy-eyed good intentions.) Of course it turned out that everyone had already at some point or other created a now-lapsed account; we would have to pay. No problem. We’re big like that. One of us tried to log in. None of us remembered our passwords. The message on the screen directed us to visit some variant of hulu.com/forgotpassword/idiot. We weren’t messing around with that. By now we were fifteen minutes past the start of the game.
Radio it would have to be. But at least we had our Internet-enabled big-screen TV speakers. We would listen to Internet radio and pipe the game through the whole downstairs. What was the name of the Philly station? How did the search function work? How long could painstakingly scrolling to and clicking on each requisite alphanumeric character with the touch-sensitive Apple remote possibly take? The answer to none of these questions mattered because, as it turned out, three increasingly incredulous searches later, Internet radio had never heard of our local broadcast station.
We pulled the long spindly antenna all the way up. We flicked the switch to FM. We twisted the volume knob as far as it would go. The warm familiar crackle — then Kyle Schwarber was in our living room, hitting a home run.
I cannot think of a single piece of personal technology that I expect to be able to give to my grandchildren in working order. Some cars fit this bill, because there is an expectation and infrastructure of ongoing repairs. But in terms of smaller items? Apple, to give the devil his due, is probably the closest. I ran my iPhone over with a car last year; a quick trip to the electronic repair store and it may last me ten years, if Apple does not sabotage me with operating systems updates or charger modifications. But there’s nothing like the GE radio, nothing that I can expect to use, day in and day out, for fifty years, without touching it.
Things used to work in this country. This is the stock complaint of the Baby Boomers, and if you are lucky enough to inherit a piece of their technology, you may find yourself agreeing. But when I say “things used to work,” the object of inherited nostalgia is not only manufacturing standards before planned obsolescence and offshoring. Things used to, literally, work. You turned a knob, and sound came on, because the knob controlled the mechanism that tuned the radio to the broadcast that the big metal radio towers dotting the landscape beamed at you. I am not a gearhead of any description and don’t care much about how the insides of electrical devices work, but I know exactly what I, personally, have to do to operate my end of the GE radio. There are no downloads, no platforms, no passwords, no little pull-down menus, no verifications or account recovery protocols. There is no streaming. Personal technology used to be a machine. Now it’s a bureaucracy.
Call her incompetent, call her a neo-Luddite, call her what you will, but there’s no denying she does have a point. For every technological advancement, there is something lost along with it, sweeping away at least some things probably worth keeping. Is the benefit worth the accompanying cost? In general terms I’d have to say yes, but I also have to wonder sometimes.
In certain quarters the current vogue is to bitch to high Heaven about modern smartphones, with some folks going so far as to foreswear their use altogether—a reflexive, pettifogging abhorrence usually announced with a braggadocious sneer, as if the speaker was extremely proud of his self-denial, iron-willed fortitude, and clear superiority over lesser mortals. It reminds me of my dad’s strenuous denunciation of VHS machines as instruments of Satan Himself back in the late 70s.
Me, I wouldn’t give up my smartphone for all the tea in China. No, my continued existence doesn’t depend on the thing by any stretch, nor does my life revolve around it. But life for me has for sure been enhanced by it.
I’ve taken what steps I know about to shut off its pocket-spy capabilities, although living as we do under the constant, sleepless gaze of the Surveillance State panopticon—its cameras peering down at us from every lamppost, building, and street sign 24/7/365—it’s doubtful at best how much that really amounts to. In that light, smartphones look like pretty small beer.
Taken for all in all, our phones ratting us out to Big Uncle is a fairly trivial issue in my estimation, scarcely worth any serious person getting his bloomers in a bunch over. Drag Queen Story Hour; the “transgender” intifada; nonexistent borders facilitating an invasion of hostile illegal aliens; economic collapse; worthless fiat currency; a central-government behemoth that has openly declared itself the enemy of We Duh Peepul—it ain’t as if we lack for more pressing and far worse concerns to cope with at the moment, after all.