Matters of Convenience

Time marches on. Progress is inevitable. Changes in technology make things more convenient. The mechanics of life become easier. And all this has an effect on how we see the world and deal with its problems.

A law student recently told me she had never in her life used a typewriter. Never once pressed a key that pushed a lever that struck a ribbon that placed a letter on a piece of paper. Never. She had never pulled a carriage from left to right that rang a bell and advanced a sheet of paper at 3:00 am to complete a term paper in time for a 9:00 am class. Never used carbon paper. Never used a gritty eraser and blown away its residue to change affect to effect or this to this on the original and on the carbon. Whenever she struck a key the results silently appeared on a screen in the font of her choice and were later proofed and corrected by Spelchek. She could relocate, reconfigure or delete paragraphs, indeed whole pages, with the clickety-clack of a keystroke.

She lives in and sees a world in which mistakes are quickly and easily corrected. When the Diet Coke spills on all but the last page at 7:30 am she has never had to decide between handing in blotted originals or racing to retype the whole thing in time for class. In her world you click on the print icon and another original appears like magic.

I shouldn't be so smug. I too have been seduced and presumably changed by advances in technology. But change for me is a slow and painful process.

I was, for example, late in the day on cell phones. When they first came out I mocked my cutting-edge friends who then had to pay for incoming calls. I delighted in running up their bills by calling and asking whether they had received any messages for me. Of course I came around eventually. Now like every other self-impressed windbag I saunter city sidewalks with a cigarette pack-sized implement attached to my ear projecting to all my importance and indispensability.

ATM's-the cash machines-also took a while. I stuck to the old system: write a check to cash, go to the bank, stand in line, get money. But I came around, succumbing to the logistical and psychological convenience of these miracle devices. They are amazing. You push a button and cash appears. It's quick. It's clean. It's better than Foxwoods. You're a winner every time. You walk away from the machine with a lilt in your step and a Master of the Universe feeling that you just got something for nothing. The end of the month statement is tomorrow's problem. Today, Bukko, you've got money to burn and you're on top of the world.

EZ Pass is even better. Stick the plastic device on your windshield and you become someone special. You go right to the front of the line. It's like a Get Out of Jail Free Card. Long lines at tollbooths all along the Eastern Seaboard bow to your special status. You're the Bob Uecker of motorists, passing by the great unwashed. You feel like you're getting away with something and you know you're never going to get caught.

Answering machines. Another advance.

The prophylactics of privacy. You screen your calls to see who's trying to bother you. You control when or whether to deal with the uninvited. These machines allow us to better stay in touch. They also bring unexpected benefits. As a client kindly shared with me recently, in the past skillful burglars could call ahead to see if anyone was home. No answer means the coast is clear and a felony will soon follow. Now, a machined answer, like when the clock strikes thirteen, produces uncertainty, not information.

Convenience, the ability to do things easily and quickly and the capacity to correct errors painlessly, has to have an effect on how we deal with problems. What effect I don't know. Whether its instant gratification, a shorter attention span or just the ease of dragging the red eight under the black nine in Microsoft Solitaire, I can't really tell. In the meantime I'm doing my best to resist Palm Pilots and Caller ID.