Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Ugly tech

Have you ever noticed how technological progress leaves behind wakes of ugliness in its path? Do you remember those huge satellite TV antennas, CRT's as big as your desk, and the blight of suburban roads everywhere...telephone lines? You could receive TV from Mars on those dishes now, and computer displays are as thin as the wallet you emptied to pay for them. But what about those telephone lines, the evolutionary cousin of telegraph lines? Will we ever be able to get rid of that eyesore?

Morse patented the first working telegraph in 1837. Marconi made the first radio broadcast across the Atlantic on December 12, 1901. If only Marconi had got off his duff and cut 30 or 40 years from his schedule we could have had cell phones before we had telephones. Maybe we could have avoided the miles and miles of telephone wire strung from poles next to every road. Of course, someone could have thought to bury telephone lines a little earlier too...Hello! What was the hold up on that brainstorm?

Joe: "Ya know, we have all these damn trees growing everywhere. I think we should cut 'em down, soak them in some arsenic-laced black tar, and tack these new-fangled telegraph wires to the top."

Alec: "Why not just tack 'em to the fence posts?"

Joe: "Gotta put ‘em high up, so those new 18-wheel covered wagons can go under."

Alec: "Oh yeah. But couldn't we just bury the cable and they could drive over?"

Joe: "What if it breaks, then what smart Alec?"

Alec: "Well, we could bring the wire up to the surface every once in awhile in little green tin boxes so we can test for breaks. And that would also give the dogs a place to pee."

Joe: "Sounds good, but that's a lot of diggin’. Climbing is way fun’r than diggin’. We could make these really cool belts so you can hang off the top and eat sandwiches."

Alec: "Good point, climbing is mad fun and I love ham on rye. But won't all those poles and sagging wire be kind’a ugly?"

Joe: "Naw, birds will sit on 'em. You'll see-- it'll look all natural-like."

Miniaturization helps make technology less ugly if for no other reason than there is less of it to see, but sometimes even that approach backfires. Cell phones used to be so big and bulky that your arm got sore after two minutes of talking. If you really needed a long chat, you could go three minutes before your ear caught on fire. At four minutes the battery was dead and you needed an hour to recharge.

Cels have now shrunk to palm-sized proportions and the battery life is so good that you can recite the Gettysburg address three hundred times in a row. And that’s exactly what all those people are doing in their cars on the way to work, in case you were wondering. Huge numbers of people now have a technological goiter hanging off their ear. Call me old-fashioned but I like the human body just fine in its original unadorned splendor. Okay, that shiny thing in Brittany Spears’ belly button is pretty cool, but that's an exception. Becoming one with the cell phone deforms the human body..one hand pressing the plastic to your ear, the elbow at a jarring right angle to your body, with a slight bend at the waist to improve reception..its scarier than watching Michael Moore at a hamburger feast.

To cure cellular deformitis, I believe we need to make cellys smaller still, shrinking them until they can be surgically implanted inside your ear. I look forward to the day when people will walk down the street, both hands dangling by their sides, head held high with earlobes waggling in the sun, talking quietly to the invisible voice inside their head. And on your stroll, try to ignore all those wires overhead.