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09/13/2005 Archived Entry: "Modern inconveniences"

A FRIEND WAS RECENTLY HAVING A BAD DAY. Except that in her case, the "day" had gone on for weeks with one annoyance or domestic catastrophe piling unsolved atop another until she was beyond the end of her rope.

As I listened to her litany of frustration, it occurred to me that virtually everything biting her was something that was supposed to help her: cellphone, home computer, office computer, Internet connection, insurance company number one, insurance company number two, bank. And how many of our own bad days have been due to such modern inconveniences?

What's worse is that when these tools of modern living go bad on us, there's usually very little we can do except call upon some expert to rescue us. And anybody who's ever struggled through a help-line call or tried to explain a simple problem to a mega-corp bureaucrat knows that the experts are often even more frustrating than the original troubles. (And this is not to mention anyone who ever waited in rising floodwaters for assistance from that ultimate modern convenience, the Nanny State.)

Yesterday afternoon I laid a rock and gravel foundation and started building the floor for a garden shed. The first few hours, trying to level the support beams, I had problems. I'd read the level, lower one end of a beam by half an inch, then check again -- and discover that the bubble's position was unchanged. It didn't make any sense and I was frustrated. But it was a totally different kind of frustration than the ohmigodmycomputer'snotworking! where'stechsupport! frustration.

I had never built the understructure of any sort of building before, so I was experiencing good old trial and error. Which I admit had me darned near reduced to tears at one point. But the thing about trial and error is that I could try and ultimately rectify my own errors. Six hours after I began, I had a sturdy, level understructure, just waiting for cross-braces and plywood flooring. And I had a sense of pride and accomplishment that I've never gotten from calling a help line.

I didn't enjoy the problem-solving process. A professional builder might look on my work with disdain. But I took another step up the ladder of being a better-functioning human being.

Now, I know some people reading this can do with computers what I did with a building foundation. But for most of us, all the "mod cons" bring as much grief as pleasure and usefulness to our lives. And even somebody who's a whiz at technology still tears his hair out when the bank says he charged $375 that he knows he didn't. Or when his ISP goes down and a half-educated tech tells him the problem must be on his end.

Worse yet, all those mod cons foster dependency. Not the healthy mutual dependency that human communities have shared throughout history. But a kind of one-way "I'll sit on my arse and complain while you fix it, and if you can't fix it I'll just junk it and get another" dependency.

I haven't had a bad month like my friend's in quite a while. But every, single day, I'm struck by a greater awareness of how much time and energy two fully functioning technologies -- the Internet and the telephone -- suck out of my life.

What's the solution? I admit I've been toying for months with the idea of ridding myself of both the phone and the DSL line and just hiking down to the library a few hours a week to use their computers. (Let them deal with the frustrations.) I don't know whether it's feasible for me to do that. But I do know that writing demands endless hours, days, even weeks, of uninterrupted quiet time, and that these two technologies -- which conversely make it possible for me to be a freelance writer in the first place -- ensure that I never get the uninterrupted, focused time a writer really needs.

I also realize that almost everybody reading this would find it inconceivable (and for good reason) to ashcan the telephone and their home Internet service. After all, the mod cons have become mod essentials. Can't make a living or send baby pix to gramma without them. But there's still no doubt that both the technologies and the institutions we rely on every day have also become modern inconveniences. Their purchase, care, and maintenance dominates huge portions of our income, our mental focus, our energy, and our time. They help keep us in a frazzle and a frenzy.

Human beings were not meant to live this way. Something's eventually got to give. It really does. We tell ourselves how blessed we are, then we live like hamsters frantically dashing around in a wheel.

Posted by Claire @ 12:21 PM CST

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