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The Dependence, Frailty and Obsolescence of Technology

As I was writing my blog for this week, I moved my laptop, which in turn jostled the battery and turned off my computer.  After a period of muttural cursing – as I was on a train, afterall – I decided it was time to put away the computer before more physical representation of my state of mind manifest itself.  And as I sit there, listening to my iPod and checking messages on my phone, my digital dependence continued.

We have reached a point where our reliance on technology has become ubiquitous in modern life.  Can’t reach someone at home? Call their cell phone, text, e-mail, or Twitter them.  If those don’t contact the person, enter a state of emergency because they went off the grid for five minutes.  Not ten years ago, it was possible to leave the house and enter a bubble of noncommunication.  If someone didn’t reach you at home, they would leave a message and hope you got back to them some time later in the day.  Now, if you take a nap, people are anxious because you didn’t get back to them immediately.

My cell phone has a tendency to occasionally turn itself off.  The phone will freeze and need to be reset.  If I don’t realize it happened, I may be off the grid for a couple of hours.  Family members who attempt to call me, regardless of the nonseverity of the reason, start to panic because I didn’t pick up the phone and call back within minutes.  The voicemails begin to stack up quickly and when I finally do call back, they question me as to why I didn’t answer the phone and why my voicemail box is full.

To fix problems like these, Verizon Wireless offers me a new phone every two years.  Rather than build phones that are intended to last for years, they expect you to hot swap the phones on a regular basis.  The best cell phone I ever owned was the Startac, a hard plastic phone with a very base display.  As my contract was up, I picked up a shinier phone with a camera and better display, but had to be replaced multiple times due to defects in the design and construction.  I have since gone through other phones and as each adds more features and becomes more complex to use, the quicker they become obsolete and the less durable they are constructed.

As our technology continues to advance, certain parts of our technology remains rooted in the past.  The Jetsons and other programming of past decades promised us flying cars, personal jetpacks and other “futuristic” modes of transportation, I’m still driving a car with an internal combustion engine and stopping regularly at a gas station to fill up.  Our homes are still lit by the same heated filaments Thomas Edison discovered over a century ago.  We remain rooted in the past, seemingly unable to take that next step forward that would free us from the shackles of the past.  While we slowly move forward, CFL and LED lightbulbs last longer and require less electricity but are not being readily accepted by the general populace.  Hybrid cars that use a combination of electricity and gasoline are becoming increasingly common but ultimately do not fully answer the issue.  Fully electric cars are slowly coming, like the Tesla, but that creates a new dependency wherein you must find places that you can charge the battery regularly, and the rarity and price keep it out of the hands of the common man for now.

Even children’s toys are not immune from this cycle of planned obsolescence.  When I was a child, most of our toys were built fairly solidly.  Parts were often die cast and required imagination to make them move and talk.  20 years later, children’s toys can move, talk, dance, and interact with each other, but they tend to be built from cheaper plastic and don’t feel like they will survive to be the hand me downs that the toys I grew up with were.  The Nintendo Entertainment System I received from my parents in the mid 80s still works and is fun to reminisce with occasionally.  The XBox 360 I purchased about 2 years ago has already been sent back to Microsoft a couple times already for repairs, and I don’t expect to be playing it 20 years from now.

Technology has become our boon and bane.  Our society has become increasingly dependent on computers, but they are built to be replaced so the corporations behind them can continue to churn out bigger, better machines that we are convinced we need to supply more power for all our needs.  An iPhone now holds more power than any computers I grew up with, but those first computers still run flawlessly.  Will the iPhone continue to run as well years from now? And will I have my flying car to drive around in with it?

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  • LizzyWednesday

    Hey Jon, you ever hear the song ‘In the Year 2525’? It’s along the lines of the tech-dependence you’re describing … and as I read your post I couldn’t help but think about ‘WALL*E’, which may be more of a comment on my mental state than a comment on your post.

    There was an article a while back, I don’t remember where, with the (sub)title “Where’s My Flying Car?” that touched on this issue, too.

    It’s times like these that I start to think my Orthodox friends have it right – observing Shabbat takes you off the grid for a whole day, and reminds you of what’s important in your life: G-d, food, friends & family … human, community things.

    Nicely written, though … even if you had to re-do it because your tech crapped out on you.

  • Everything in the article is very true however it is the way modern society has been forged. Automobiles with internal combustion engines could certainly use some energy efficient improvement far superior to the hybrid vehicles we see today. For all the advancements we make it certainly seems like we overlook some major sources of eco trouble. Although one area there is significant improvement in is energy efficient LED lighting.
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