Check This Out!

It would be an understatement to say I flounder in the waves of new technology. No sooner do you begin to get a grip on some gadget, software or device then some new upstart replacement arrives and you must begin again. Nevertheless there is the odd innovation that I do, after some tuition and practice start to get the hang of-even derive some satisfaction from and appreciate.

Take automatic check-outs. At last, after studious avoidance, suspicion, trial, many failed attempts, instruction and practice I am able to process my shopping through the complicated business of self-check-out totally unaided [sometimes]; I am able to bag things without the strident voice admonishing ‘unauthorised item in the bagging area!’ I can manage to tell it I have my own bags and collect the points on my loyalty card. Even so there are blips, like this morning’s debacle of the machine refusing to acknowledge my bananas.

I can see the benefits of self-check-outs. They cut down queues, take up less space and time and negate the need to engage with real people. Wonderful! But actually I am getting to an age where I’ve begun to enjoy those mini conversations, those minor snippets of small talk-with the person queuing in front of me or behind me; with the baby sitting in the trolley, with the person sitting behind the check-out or the boy scouts helping to pack the stuff. And if those of us who have company at home want to speak to others-what of those who lead solitary lives, these moments of minimal chit-chat the only conversational encounters in their day?

And what will those check-out workers do when the machines finally edge them out of employment? Nobody wants to be labelled a Luddite or to stand in the middle of the road of progress, but what are the employment options for manual workers whose occupations are being usurped by machines?

The Japanese [who else?] have designed and manufactured a ‘drone waiter’; a flying tray that delivers meals to diners. I don’t know if it is programmed to intone ‘Enjoy your meal’ or ‘have a nice day’ or to return and ask ‘is everything all right for you?’ but I doubt if it can process the reply. What if your steak is underdone, your side salad hasn’t appeared or the wine is corked? What on Earth are all the resting actors to do to support themselves in between roles, if waiting at tables becomes a redundant job?

Technology has come a long way, no more so than in the field of communication; but the future holds a bizarre vision. Silent people queueing to commune with machines, restaurants full of silent customers jabbing at screens. Will we lose the power of speech and the ability to look anyone in the eye? Perhaps our personal machines can take on our communication for us? Why not? Get your mobile device to speak to your friend’s mobile device. Get it to select and order your meal-why stop there? Get it to eat the meal, tip the drone waiter, call the driverless cab and go home. Who needs people anyway?

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The Jones and their Phones

                Years ago, in my childhood [ie many years ago] a popular phrase was: ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’. Who were the Joneses? And what did ‘keeping up’ with them mean? Well in those days it meant the acquisition of new-fangled gadgets and appliances and labour-saving devices.

                My mother would scoff. “What would I do with one of those?” she would jeer, at the idea of a twin-tub washing machine. “I can get the washing much cleaner by hand”. And there she would be, sweating over an old ‘copper’ which she stirred with an ancient, bleached and tapered pole, boiling up the sheets, wringing them out in an aged mangle before taking them up the garden to the clothes line.

                Presumably some previous generation must have derided coppers and mangles as new-fangled fripperies, since these machines were not strictly doing it all by ‘hand’, but other than taking everything down to the river and dashing it on a stone, this was ‘hand washing’ to my Ma.

                It was the same story for all contraptions; vacuum cleaner, TV, electric cooker and later, video recorder and microwave oven. Once these items were installed they were deemed life savers and no mention was ever made of life before their arrival.

                Whilst the phrase, ‘Keeping up with the Joneses’ has fallen out of use, the concept remains and is alive and kicking in these times of rampant technological development. I am proud of the way my mother responded to her neighbours’ purchases, although once she’d belatedly installed her own versions she became evangelistic about them, wondering what she ever did without them and spending hours watching the revolving tub of the automatic front loader or raving at length about the attributes of the video recorder.

                When someone recently described to me a gathering of friends who ridiculed her for her modest [non-apple] smartphone I was shocked. Indeed, of all those gathered, only one, apparently was appropriately equipped phone-wise-with an ‘iphone 5’. What does this say about the rest of us, those of us who have opted for a budget model with a supermarket contract? We are to be pitied. We have not ‘kept up’. Some of us [me] are even still using a plain, bog standard laptop with a keyboard. Imagine that!

                This is not a competition to see who is first to get a new, labour saving device; this is a shameless bid for admiration via one-up-man-ship. On my humble smartish phone that no one has ever heard of I am able to text, call, use Facebook [a debatable advantage], Google, take snaps and send them, email people, catch up with the news and find out where I am. There are also innumerable facilities which I have no interest in [such as games] and many more I know nothing about and am unlikely ever to avail myself of. I like my old fashioned laptop despite the fact that a visiting friend was unable to swipe on to the next photo I was showing her. So there!