Frozen solid at the speed of electrons

In the shuttle bus to the airport, Veronica, Mike and I shared our nostalgia from decades past.  Do you remember rotary dial telephones that had a hard wire to the wall, typically no more than a few feet long?  You had to sit or stand right next to the phone to talk to someone.  For a seven digit telephone number, it could take up to thirty seconds to dial, particularly if they were all high numbers.  The rotary return took longer to unwind than winding it, and you couldn’t force it to move faster.  SsshuNK, clicka-clicka-clicka-clicka.  SssshuNK, clicka-clicka-clicka.  Etcetera.


In those days, electro-mechanical devices were beginning to broaden out.  Color television was just becoming available to households.  Slide rules still ruled.  No calculators existed except the monsters that required a slot-machine-like lever pull to get the answers.  We have come so very far.  I use my iPhone and daily marvel at all the functions it can perform.  But even with these dramatically powerful electronic tools, I am glad that my index finger once traveled that quick arc to begin a phone call.  Here’s why.

A while ago, my wife Cheri and I went to a new restaurant.  New to us, anyway.  The recommendation came from a friend who praised the seafood selection.  We love the fruits of the ocean and so we arrived to try it out.  The waiter came over to introduce the specials, and to tell us that the electronic ordering system was apparently not operable.  He said it might be a few minutes before he could enter our order.

“It’s a new system”, he explained.  “We just installed it yesterday and it has a few bugs.  Should be up and running soon.”

The waiter left.  Cheri and I looked at each other quizzically, but resolved to not be pushy and just enjoyed our wine while we waited.  About ten minutes later, the waiter returned.  He said, “The system is still out.  I’m not sure what to do at this point.  They don’t know how long it will be.  I’m really sorry.”

I paused and then asked, “If we just tell you what we’d like to eat, can you tell the chef and then he could make it?”

The waiter seemed flustered.  “Uh, well…yeah, I think I can do that.  But, uh, I could tell the chef anything and, uh, there wouldn’t be a way to check up on that, you know?”

“Do you mean that if we tell you what we’d like to eat, you might tell the chef something else?” I asked, incredulous.  “Why would you do that?”

“I guess I wouldn’t” the waiter agreed.  “Well, uh, let me see.  How can I get your order?”

I suggested, “Perhaps if you have a small piece of paper and either a pencil or a pen, you could write down our dinner selections…?”

That seemed to brighten his mood.  “Sure!  Yeah, I’ll go get a piece of paper!”  We told him what we wanted, and he left.  Ten minutes later he returned with the news that the chef was making our dinners as we had selected them.  “I just walked back and told him!” he said.  “I didn’t need the paper!”  He was very proud of himself for taking such bold and creative action.

I don’t mean to sound all pompous and righteous here, but it’s very hard not to stare in blank amazement at just how incapable some of our citizenry are becoming due to the pervasive and apparently debilitating use of electronic devices.  We rely on them for so many tasks that our brains are atrophying.

I was talking with Jim a few months back, down at the Waterfront.  He’s a very good friend of mine who was in auto mechanics for about twenty years.  He was telling me that mechanics don’t do engine work anymore.  “You don’t do ring and valve jobs?” I asked.  “You don’t change out cam shafts or replace pistons?”  I couldn’t believe that what I used to know about the life of mechanics was no longer relevant.  He said, “Nope.  We just swap out electronic modules now.  We drop in rebuilt engines.  We’re technicians who do software and systems troubleshooting.  I haven’t turned a torque wrench in years.”

I know that I am much less independent than the generation before me.  So is the younger generation even less capable than I am at self-sufficiency?  When we get to the point where a waiter feels like he’s invented a new communications tool by relaying an order verbally, we have gone way too far towards delegating our chores to the world of electrons.

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