Whether in our private bunkers buried deep in the side of a West Virginia mountain or in the public splendor of our glass-ringed corporate HQ offices at the summit of Disquieting Trends Towers, we love us the technology. We bask, bathe and otherwise soak in its nurturing LED-glow—the promise of instant-everything at the flick of our thumbs tingling like a good bourbon up and down our gullet. We take the joy of gadgets to be one of our birthrights as children born to The Brady Bunch and brought to the full extension of our powers under the steady tutelage of the trusty V.J.s of the 1980s1. We understand that Technology is Mother—having nurtured us as we are young and still being there to comfort us when we are developing our first aches and pains—and that we metaphorically suckle at its cyber nipple in a continual gesture of supplication to her all-embracing love. In short, we love our gizmos and magic elixirs because we believe that they love us.
That being said, we must ask: Why does every one of our gizmos and magic elixirs find ways to consistently disappoint us when it matters most?
Thus, an edition of Disquieting Modern Trends devoted to the ways in which Mother Technology continually finds ways to make us feel adopted.
We realize we’re starting with the primitive and non-electronic here, but—trust us—the nail clipper is a perfect example of modern technology at its vexing, bait-and-switch worst. The design is brilliant—custom made for Claus Oldenburg’s large-form soft sculpture memorializing. As kids we were fond of using various sizes of nail clippers (the sleek and coy baby fingernail clipper, the sensible and trim adult fingernail clipper, and the intimidating, broad-shouldered, vaguely phallic adult toenail clipper) in an elaborate Star Trek-esque fantasy game, swooping them about like warp-speed star cruisers and sweeping out their hinged nail-file attachment to represent the intergalactic flames that would emerge from their ion-powered engine ports. (We were foot-grooming accessory dorks—we admit it.) These ornate, insectazoid tools seemed to come from an adult work of intricate design that must have been given to us by a higher intelligence visiting our innocent US suburbs from a far off galaxy of improbably technical marvels, we thought.
But as adults—when we finally started to use these snippers for actual toenail cutting—our cynicism was immediate. You clip, and that part works just fine. But the little bits of toenail that fly off in random directions?—Not so cool. We’re reminded, on the one hand, of our mommas leaning over a wastepaper basket trying to aim the yellowing shards therein and, on the other hand, of Hal Incandenza in David Foster Wallace’s under-enjoyed Infinite Jest aiming his toe nubbins at the wastebasket from across the room. The point being—this particular technology takes your toenails and errantly sprays them across your living space. The idea of attaching some kind of collection bag to the side of the clippers—like the bag on a lawn mower, perhaps—seems beyond the scope of modern technology. We can land a man on the moon and we can get the guy who played “Screech” on Saved by the Bell on TV, but we can’t, etcetera and so on2.
Our bafflement stands before us like a great monument of worry.
We are very tidy men—or, at least, the Thai children we have imported to scrub the cabana’s marble countertops after late-night margarita madness are. What we don’t understand is why we—um, they—have to work so hard to scrub off the sticky post-margarita detritus, especially when it has been left in the sink with our raisin bran bowls from this morning. We applaud the liberal use of the Formula 409, but it does not seem to do the trick—not to our extra-high, German hausfrau standards anyway. Have you seen the latest ad campaign for Formula 409 in which the good people at the Clorox company wax endlessly about how dangerously potent Formula 410 would be?3. We say, bring it on! And likewise the rest of our soap, disinfectant, and solvent needs! What do you MEAN we have to buy a fruity little scrub sponge to get scuff marks off the linoleum? We want, like, Mr. Clean’s Taser Machine: ZAP and the dog starts to howl and the lights dim for just a second and you can smell the ozone. We believe in the power of radioactive and slightly unstable elements when de-scumming our shower curtain. We feel dead-on certain that Rumsfeld doesn’t have to run his dishwasher twice just because he left the marinara on his plates overnight.
Space travel gave us Tang and Velcro, but nothing better to clean up our mess? We think they are bogarting it for their own use, personally. NASA bastards.
Cellphones, Cellphone VoiceMail, Basically the Entire Telecom Promise of Constant and Immediate Connection
We have them, we use them, we rely on them, we’re even willing to believe that they are not shooting some kind of harmful waves into the subtler portions of our brains—but still, why do cellphones basically suck our weenies?4.
In our experience, cellphones only work about 70% of the time. It’s not at all uncommon for our brokers or personal sushi chefs to be trying to reach us with some kind of yellow fin emergency, yet the call is (a) not getting through, (b) enveloped in some kind of Brian Wilson-y echo effect, (c) cutting out as soon as we lean over to grab a mojito from the butler’s tray, or (d) putting us on some kind of unintentional conference call with a woman in Cincinnati who is trying to return a pair of Size-16 wrinkle-free khakis to L.L. Bean. We were told that text messages get through on even fewer “bars” than phone calls, but the notion that we need to type our personal communications on a tiny keyboard when we still have larynxes in perfect working order seems, uh, like a step backward rather than a step forward, not to mention that in this calendar year we have routinely gotten text messages from our cool young friends that were sent sometime during the early Paleolithic.
Cellular voicemail is a whole ’nother level of annoyance and vexation. We all know by now how to use it, so we do not need a thirty-second explanation of what we need to do next (e.g., press a button, page someone, leave a message). And we KNOW that all that gunk is put in there to run up our minutes in a nefarious collusion by all those service providers who are in bed so close with each other it makes that Alltell commercial with all the spokespersons together resonate in a Big King way (see D.M.T. Super Bowl Edition). No, the problem is not that it is slow and cumbersome and kind of cosmically redundant. The problem is that we often get voicemails from people who called us even though our phone never rang. Can’t say for sure, but this seems like—minimum—a reversal of cause and effect. Until someone like Stephen Hawking or Brian Greene5 gives us a person to consult on this, we are labeling it: disquieting.
The summary point is this: we want to love our Treos and Razors and Blackberries and the way in which they provide us with constant media stimulus and connection to the vast cyber/telecom/entertainment consortium that we so lovingly caress for a living. But the promise of all this digital linkage can best be described as a shadow on the wall of the media cave.
The Fact That You No Longer Have to Sign Your Credit Card Slips Which Suggests That, in Fact, You Never Really Had to Sign the Damned Things at All Even Though, for Years, They Made It Seem Like You Absolutely DID
For countless decades we sat in restaurants and watched the bill come in those leather billfolds, and we dutifully placed the credit card in the slot and awaited the billfold’s return—replete with a pen for the Ceremonial Signing of the Credit Card Form. This ritual—comforting, legal, even presidential in tone—was taken dead seriously by all involved. On more than one occasion when we forgot to sign the thing, our waiter came dashing across the street after us to obtain the crucial John Hancock, on which the entire food-for-fee industry seemed to hinge. The whole thing has always made us feel like our fathers, for better or worse.
Now, suddenly, the signature is optional. Gas stations don’t want it and, increasingly, neither does anyone else. That’s cool, except: why was the signature ever needed in the first place? The disquietude here is less regarding the absence of the signature than in the horrible acknowledgement by our entire culture that all that signing, all that signature chasing, even the occasional signature-checking-by-the-cashier-glancing-down-at-the-white-strip-on-your-card, and all that general ballpoint-pen ink-wasting was always unnecessary.6 Like the chemical some people tell you is in their pool that will nail you if you decide to take a leak in the deep end, the whole signature thing has always been a ruse. Today, when a business asks us for a signature, we choose to stare at them in wide-eyed innocence. If Exxon don’t need it, neither do you, buddy.
Before we are accused of going for the lowest of fruit—the fact that, 25 years after their invention, microwaves are still incapable of heating anything evenly—forebear. We recognize that such a complaint would be more, like, a Disquieting Modern Trend of 1982. We also will not gripe about the fact (A) that it has a clock, making the microwave clock the seventh clock in the kitchen, together with the fridge, the stove, the radio, and the wine chiller, and making correlation between them like splitting the atom, or (B) that it dings insistently after it is done to remind you to take out whatever it was you put in. Like it has somewhere else to be.
All of these issues have been well covered elsewhere. You know us better than that. No, we bemoan the total lack of imagination that afflicts both microwave creators and patrons alike, the sad rows of buttons promising exotic possibilities (“Dinner Plate!” “Potato!”) when we all know that microwaves are used 99% of the time to nuke whatever it is for “minute plus,” then open it up 5 seconds before the ding because you hate that fucking ding (and you want to strike preemptively against the reminder ding, which will put you right out of your gourd). What an armamentarium of possibilities the microwave first promised! We remember the first time we scrambled an egg in one, only to leave the spoon in and almost burn down the house. And the egg tasted like crap too. We are saddened by waste everywhere, and those microwave cookbooks just remind us of high school science projects, full of crazy conjecture totally unrelated to the culinary milieu of the microwave user. In short, we wish they were never made; so sad to see such potential squandered through lack of imagination and initiative.
Next Edition: The Fact That the Proliferation of “Fashion” Reality TV Has Done Nothing to Make America Seem Less Aesthetically Horrible in Every Possible Sense.