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I Love Technology

I’ve been around long enough to have seen many changes and have been against most of them. However, I am beginning to embrace the technology revolution. I have 2 computers, a color printer, a scanner, and some other stuff. Yesterday I took another big step into the 21st century—I bought a digital camera. It’s one of the point and shoot cameras. All the literature was very reassuring. This camera is touted to be the very epitome of simplicity. In order to use this amazingly simple piece of equipment, all one must do is follow the simple instructions contained in the 136 pages of the manual that came with the camera. I will admit I usually think of “simplicity” as something that can be described in 5 pages or less, preferably profusely illustrated.

I was encouraged to note, “This equipment has been tested and found to comply with the limits for a Class B digital device, pursuant to Part 15 of the FCC Rules.” I would shutter (to coin a phrase) to think of the possible consequences of operating a piece of equipment in violation of any FCC rules.

On the very first page there is a graphic of a lightning bolt along with a warning, “This symbol is to alert the user to the presence of uninsulated “dangerous voltage” within the product’s enclosure that may be of sufficient magnitude to constitute a risk of electric shock to persons.” A simple way to put it is, “This sucker can shock the hell out of you.” That’s simplicity. Why couldn’t they just say so? The world would operate much more smoothly if we just said in plain language what we mean.

To wit: A few decades ago a very popular toothpaste had a long-running series of television commercials which assured us that the product was “an effective, decay-preventing dentifrice when used in a consciously applied program of oral hygiene and regular professional care.” This splendid promise was endorsed by no less august a body than the American Dental Association. It was the purpose of this message to make us believe that no other product available to us was as good as their toothpaste. By extension, if we weren’t buying and using their product, we were running the risk of living toothless. It sounded so official you knew it had to be true. Now I ask you, if you use baking soda or seaweed powder or uncooked grits in your conscientious program of dental care (which, of course, includes 2 or 3 visits to the dentist annually), wouldn’t that go just as far in preventing tooth decay? For all their flowery promises, this toothpaste company could guarantee only this: Brush your teeth and see your dentist. You won’t get cavities. Much simpler, but less confounding to a gullible public.

And isn’t that just the paradox of rampantly advancing technology? All the marvels designed and produced to make our lives simpler come with accompanying explanations that are so impenetrable as to be stifling. We could hardly trust a $400.00 device that arrived with a simple note card for handy reference. We’re probably not paying that $400.00 for the technology anyway. In the evolution of the process, technology – by its very life-simplifying nature—gets progressively less expensive to produce. About the time we were thrilling to the magnanimous promises of that toothpaste company, Lynn’s uncle, a CPA who has so far remained unindicted, purchased a hand-held accounting calculator to make his job easier. Cost? $400.00. Same calculator, hanging by the checkout counter at Wal-Mart last week: $4.88. In fact, the calculator at Wal-Mart has several technological advantages over its earlier version. It’s lighter, smaller, faster, solar powered (no cord; no batteries), performs more functions and costs so little it’s completely disposable. It’s the very benchmark of advanced technology: simple to use and affordable.

No, it’s not the technology that’s costing us mental and financial strain. It’s the instructions. Almost every new technical device arrives with a manual whose size is determined as a function of the weight and dimensions of the device itself. My new camera weighs 13 ounces and measures approximately 3.5 x 3.5 inches. Its manual weighs 6 ounces and measures 4 x 6 inches. They would have made the manual weigh as much as the camera, but the EPA stepped in and threatened to hold the company accountable for the destruction of the Brazilian rain forest if it used more than 136 pages worth of paper. And to fill all those pages, lots and lots of words. We’re paying top dollar for a legion of highly skilled technical writers to create these manuals. * And our return is the privilege of being confounded and bumfuzzled by the very words that are supposed to clear the whole mess up.

They do this on purpose and for our benefit. It protects our fragile egos. Would you buy a camera that, instead of a complicated 136-page set of instructions, arrived with this message – “This is really easy to use. Go home and ask your grandkids how it works?” You say no, but then who really programs your VCR?

So, late in life, I’ve embraced technology. One by one I’ve assembled around me a myriad of devices to ease my daily household burdens. And it’s a good thing my life has been so simplified. I need the extra time to read the instruction manuals.

*My good friend Tammy is an accomplished technical writer who writes in clear, concise, and sometimes witty prose, so nothing in this column applies to her