I had a dream last night. I was at my parents’ house, went into the bathroom, reached out with my right hand for the light switch, and ended up pushing against a plastic rectangle where the switch should have been. Responding to my darns and drats, my father poked first his head, then his arm around the door, and with a finger pushed a small lever at the top of the plastic disc—and then there was light!
I mention this dream, though it had no basis in reality, because it seems to perfectly reflect my recent discovery about myself: that I am some kind of semi-Luddite. I say “semi-Luddite” because I am not against new technology, only against upgrades to existing technology.
Take the automobile, for example. I have been leasing the same make of car (and mostly the same model) for many years now. Every three years or so the dealer and/or manufacturer presents me with an offer that provides me with a more expensive car with more horsepower and more features than the one I am driving and all at a lower leasing price (how they manage that, I don’t know, but I remember the punchline of an old joke: “We juggle the books”). When I took possession of the latest incarnation (no pun intended), one of the first things I did was to carry six CDs to the car to load the audio system as I had the previous model. After placing the first disc into the slot and watching it load, I waited for the signal to load the second. No signal. I examined the dashboard carefully for a secret button that would allow me to load the other discs, only to discover that the six-disc changer was gone, its space occupied by the GPS system and an on-board computer that I have no idea how to use. OK, I’ll put my hand up for GPS responsibility. I opted for it, for a few bucks more—even though I never go anywhere. I have programmed it exactly once, and even then I knew where I was going; I just wanted to make sure that I didn’t miss my turn-off, the sign for which is a only slightly bigger than a dishrag. Mission accomplished, I hopped into the car for the return journey, and got only as far as the traffic light at the end of the street, when the GPS female told me to turn around and go back to the address I had just left. I ignored her, but since I had no idea how to throttle her throat, for the rest of the trip home she nagged and nagged, telling me at every highway exit to make a right turn and circle back in the opposite direction. (My mistake was to think that the program would be canceled once I got to my original destination and shut off the engine.)
When I finally got home, I pulled out the War and Peace tome that passes for an owner’s manual and tried to figure out how to turn the shrew off. First, I had to pass something of a Miller Analogies Test, trying to discover which of the half-dozen or so drawings of steering wheel configurations matched mine. Was it the one with the crescent-shaped buttons above the square ones? The round ones alongside the rectangles? It took me twenty minutes—the same time as my return trip—to find the right voodoo curse to banish the disembodied voice.
If the automobile is the prime example of technology offering vast amounts of dead trees to explain to new users how it’s all supposed to work, the opposite is the computer. I recently bought a new laptop, and the only two instructions on the napkin-sized accordion set-up folder depicted (a) how to put the battery in and (b) how to attach the AC cord. DUH! But if new computers do not arrive with massive instruction books, they, like new cars, bear gifts that one should beware of. For every advance, something else goes missing. Of course, one only finds out what’s not there any more once one tries to place all one’s defaults on the new computer. Where’s my favorite typeface (Byington)? Gone, even though I’ve used the same Office 2000 software installation disc as on previous computers. Why can’t I print back to front, although I’ve made that my default in three different places? And why can’t I email directly from Word or Open Office, as I could before?
Ah, but the new computer offered one goody: I received with my new purchase a certificate that will allow me, for only fifteen dollars, to upgrade from the Windows 7 operating system to Windows 8 when the latter is introduced this fall.