Killing Time

With techno-efficiency like this, who needs inefficiency?

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I went to deposit a check at the drive-up ATM the other day, but it was closed momentarily for service. So I opted for the drive-up human-teller lane, as getting out of my car seemed like an unfathomable waste of 21st-century time.

But when the young man behind the window greeted me three times through the garbled speakerphone and I sent the check off in a constipated 1960-vintage pneumatic tube, I realized this day was somehow meant for me to confront our absurd alliance with technology.

Here’s how it went down: The teller—full of human foibles like suspicion and concern for job stability—asked a probing question about the check, a question the ATM never asks. Then he consulted a manager. The manager, full of human foibles like pride and a dumbfounding need to repeat herself, came to the window and shouted the same question at me, several times, until I informed her—over the panting car engine—that I deposit similar checks routinely at this bank’s ATM without a problem.

She did the brainwork and concluded, “Well, would you mind taking this to the ATM then?”

So? So I—full of human foibles like irritability and poverty—drove a lap around the bank and pulled up to the now-open ATM to deposit the check. It was credited immediately with no questions asked—which only prompted many questions in me about the often inverse relationship between technology and human logic.

Has technology really made us better as a whole? Has it replaced our shortcomings and made the world more efficient, or has it more often stymied our brains and taught us new ways to waste time?

Allow me to take you back to a pivotal time and place in the annals of personal technology: 1980s suburbia. My father worked for IBM. One day he came home from work and said we could skip vacation that year to buy one of the first-ever personal home computers.

Now I don’t know why—I think it may have had something to do with The Jetsons, or the unadulterated logic of children—but I believed a home computer would run the home. I thought it would open our curtains in the mornings, shut them at night, and perhaps do the laundry in between. Maybe manage a security system, or talk to us like Charlie talked to his Angels, or at the very least, make me feel science-y. And so it was with massive disappointment and a confusion that’s marred my relationship with tech ever since that I discovered our vacation-killing machine did nothing. Absolutely nothing. No curtains, no security system, no omnipotent crime-fighting voice. It sat in the spare bedroom on a card table and, if given 20 minutes to boot up, it blinked a green cursor on a black screen.

Thereafter, my father spent countless nights writing code to make a database for my mother’s recipes, and she learned to cook without them. This is when I learned two things: the correct response to techno hype is instant jadedness; and a gadget’s promise of efficiency causes people to waste a lot of time.

I remember my first cellphone in the 1990s. It was the size of a Buick and had a battery pack that weighed 400 pounds and an indestructible rubber antenna in case you needed to use it in a hurricane. You couldn’t simply dial out, either; you had to enter an access code first to alert the satellite operators in a control tower somewhere near Cape Canaveral that you were about to call home. And in order to do that, you had to stop in your tracks, wave everybody away and announce, “I need to make a telephone call on my mobile telephone, which has no cord!” Then, when you connected, you had to yell even louder, as if you were in a war zone taking fire—at the grocery store. “YES. I WILL GET BUTTER. I UNDERSTAND YOU.” There was no time to discuss what kind of butter, as this communique was urgent and sparse, and so whatever kind you got, you got—it came by the wonders of technology, ergo, you were better off for it. Even if you had to go back to the store later to get margarine.

And so it goes. This kind of thrilled idiocy is apparently everlasting. Today, while driving, I found myself trying to text an urgent response to a Facebook post about a rabbit cartoon. It’s illegal and stupid to text while driving, and it’s also behind the curve to be maniacally Facebooking (or depositing checks, for that matter, rather than living in the paperless universe). If I were on top of my game at all, I would’ve had an assistant Tweeting something clever (attributed to me and self-promoting but saved by a dash of irony) to my 1.43 billion (but who’s counting?) technologically savvy but increasingly inefficient followers.

It seems that what we’ve perfected, and improved upon time and time again, is our means of distraction. The other day, I read a column in the UK’s Daily Mail about how Twitter is not only ruining the nuanced beauty of the English language, but also—along with technological devices of all kinds—taking us away from actually participating in the present, allowing us too many diversions from in-the-moment interactions with people, or with nature, or with our own whole paragraphs of thought.

I read that column on my cellphone, while waiting in my car for the drive-up ATM. There were no cars in line for the human tellers; their lanes were open and empty. But I waited.



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