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From machine to bureaucracy: the hotrails to Hell

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 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.


14 thoughts on “From machine to bureaucracy: the hotrails to Hell

  1. I wouldn’t give up my smartphone for all the tea in China.

    Fine…but is your smartphone continuously in your hand? Does it command your attention at all times? If not, you are not representative of the plague sufferers who’ve made public places and streets a horror to be navigated with extreme caution. You are not representative of the addicts who’ve made dinner with family or friends an exercise in futility. And you are not representative of the many millions of smartphone owners whose supreme priority is making sure they know which of their “friends” have updated their Facebook statuses.

    The smartphone could have been an advance. It wasn’t. It’s just one more attention-consuming, isolating influence that’s helping to atomize American society.

  2. We get to a store. Oh look, the sale in item Z ended. We need item Z. Is it worth going to That Other Store and get it cheaper? Let’s check. Smartphone to the rescue. Nope, same price or higher over there.

    Saves us gas and time OR it may save us a few bucks perhaps if Item Z really is better priced elsewhere. Just a little thing but it’s lot of little convenient little things to have it.

  3. “Things used to work in this country…”

    Let’s be very clear – they work better than ever. Way better. It ain’t even close.

    Do you know what a TV repair shop is? They used to be on every street corner because the TV required tuning and repair. Same for vacuum tubed radios as discussed above. I grew up with a vacuum tube expert, an electrical engineer from the slide rule days, the type that sent a man to the moon with slide rule derived calculations, my father.

    Cars? Not.Even.Close. TV’s, radios, HVAC, refrigerators, stoves, ovens, EVERYTHING, they all work better, last longer, and cost way less.

    1. Riiiiiight.

      Now I get a SmartAssTV that spies on me and my program choices 24/7/forever.
      And then craps out completely after 18 months.

      And if I didn’t get the shake down protection, I’m out the entire price, and repairs cost more than it did new-in-the-box.

      Google LG. This week.

      What can you wrench on yourself these days?
      And what data have the spies built into your car tattled on to God Alone Knows Who? Location? Speed? Seatbelt use? Use of the Lighter?
      Ask the J6 defendants who never entered the capitol building, but still got scooped up in the dragnet because of location pings, about that one.

      Things are not “better now”, for the most important values of that word.

      Hell, I can’t even find pants hangers (pants hangers, FFS!!) that haven’t been bastardized with planned-obsolescence plastic stress points, to guarantee failure in a couple of years, while my parent’s all-metal version from the 1940s is still chugging away without a hiccup.

      1. “And then craps out completely after 18 months.”
        Not in the real world. The LCD’s live for 50K+ hours and double that for LED. I’ve yet to have a TV fail, with 5 at the beach house and 3 in my regular home.
        “…repairs cost more than it did new-in-the-box.”
        True, because they are so damn inexpensive to start with. A 25 inch color TV sold for around $2k in 1965, almost $20,000 in today’s dollars.

        The hell with Korean appliances. I could care less what google has to say. Typical mid 60’s 18cf total refrigerator was $500, equivalent to $5000 today. I have two bought in the last 5 years, both Frigidaire, approximately 24cf, and under $1500, with water and ice in the door. They will last 3-4 times the 60’s models.

        I know one hell of a lot about cars, every single part. No comparison. You can’t work on them as easily because YOU DON”T NEED TO. When I started driving in the 60’s you had to tune the car up every 6-10K miles. Now they routinely go 100K miles. I have multiple cars, two have over 300,000 miles with nothing but routine maintenance. Third is at 150K. Again, it’s not even close.

        The discussion isn’t about spying.

  4. I use a smartphone – the nature of my part-time business makes having it a necessity (I sell health care insurance, and my clients – old folks and younger ones, generally without much money). I need to be able to connect to the internet, rather than have my weak and aging body haul around enrollment kits and information about different plans. Apple makes it all easier, and allows me to connect to internet via the iPhone with seldom a pause.

    I COULD get by with any smartphone, but for my hearing aids. Say what you will about Apple, their products’ ability to connect to just about ANY hearing aid – seamlessly, easily – is unparallelled. With that capability, I can stream media, telephone conversations, and internet straight into my ears. That provides a level of audio fidelity that cannot be matched.

    Other than that, I seldom use my phone, unless I’m not near a tablet or computer.

    1. I prefer my laptop and keyboard over my phone. But when away the phone works.
      I use the phone routinely as my internet connection to my laptop. I connect with most of our machines over the internet. To connect locally I have to change the IP address, then change it back (remember!), so I will connect to the internet on my phone and then to my laptop to avoid that. Many factories have wireless internet access but trying to connect with the right password is always a pain. The phone works wherever there is a decent signal.

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