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Techno Blues

It's the end of the technology road for this weary traveler.


At Christmastime, as I fiddled with my son’s new iPad, I was suddenly overcome by melancholy. It was not entirely a surprise. It had been gathering strength in a sea of regret and finally took shape as a rogue wave. I had jilted Steve Jobs in the mid-1990s and had long since come to regret it.

But the wave of melancholy I experienced that day was more than just regret for breaking faith with Apple (having been seduced by the price of a PC). It drew strength from crosscurrents of dismay and lament. There was print journalism’s worrisome decline. Then Eastman Kodak announced its lamentable decision to end production of Kodachrome color film. In October, I was dismayed to learn Sony was pulling the plug on the Walkman. Finally, I was stunned to read that e-mail is passé.

I regarded each of these a personal setback, but in the aggregate, I felt more than dismay. I was diminished. The cassette-tape player and 35mm film were once staples in my life. Their passing left a hole.

The gutting of the Deseret News newsroom last summer put a human face (85 faces, actually) on a troubling national trend.

Hello, techno blues.

I am not the kind of guy who stands in line to buy the latest gizmo. I was in no hurry to give up my IBM Selectric typewriter after Wang Laboratories unveiled the first word-processor in 1972. I still listen to the Beatles on CDs. I have Jim Croce on vinyl. Had he not been killed in a plane crash, I think Croce might have added a playful verse to “Working at the Car Wash Blues” as Tom Paxton sometimes does in a performance. So, the refrain, “I got them steadily depressin’, low-down mind-messin’, working-at-the-car-wash blues,” might have been changed to, “I got them steadily depressin’, low-down mind-messin’, dealing-with-the-techno blues.”

The source of the techno blues is the realization that obsolescence is an integral part of every technology. What works today won’t work tomorrow. Tomorrow’s version will have more bells and whistles. It will be smaller, faster and more capable. Concomitantly, although at a less frenetic pace, we users grow fatter, slower and less capable. Between those two opposing vectors, techno blues take root like dandelions in a vacant lot.

I had been shooting 35mm slides for a few years when Paul Simon recorded “Kodachrome.” His musical apostrophe focused my attention on a product I took for granted.

“Kodachrome, you give us those nice bright colors.
You give us the greens of summers.
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day ...
So Mama, don’t take my Kodachrome away.”

As it turns out, Mama had no influence, as digital-photo technology eroded demand for film.

Cassette tapes had the same fate. I have almost 100 of them in a drawer. I used to play them on a Walkman, a transformative technology when introduced in 1980. It made jogging bearable. I also used the tape player when I cut the lawn. I had a big yard and a riding mower. I played the Grateful Dead and sang along lustily, despite the arm-waving protestations of my wife from the porch.

Sure, I could buy a digital camera and an iPod, but I shrink from the investment of time and money in yet another technological innovation. And who’s to say how long it might last? In music, I have followed along as vinyl—45s and 33s, mono and stereo—yielded to reel-to-reel tape, then eight-track, cassette and CD. I have saved the record albums and cassettes, but I can’t remember what became of all that machinery. I don’t like to think about it. I am fond of iTunes, but it is the end of the music techno-road for this weary traveler.

E-mail, on the other hand, is a medium I value and rely upon. I intend for my obituary to be circulated by e-mail. I was gobsmacked by the headline in The New York Times: “E-mail, ‘so lame,’ losing young users.”

Lame? How could a communications technology in its prime be losing users in droves? The answer, of course, is Generation Y’s love of mobiles and instant messaging. While a laptop is a liberating device for me, it is too cumbersome for telephone-addicted teens. E-mail is too slow for abbreviation-loving texters (EM SUX!). They favor such nimble alternatives as Twitter, Foursquare and Facebook. Although e-mailing from Hotmail and Yahoo is on the decline, Facebook is processing 4 billion messages a day, and there are surely many more to come.

I don’t think it is just a matter of generational difference. Individual quirks are a factor. For instance, I would rather write a letter than make a telephone call. I take pleasure from a well-written paragraph, and I am willing to invest hours to get the right words right. Not many of any age are so inclined: CWOT (complete waste of time); TTL (takes too long). Speed is a BFD for the young.

For me, stability is a BFD. I have endured too many upgrades. I have come to hate the long, halting conversations with Biff in Bangalore as I struggle with a computer problem. I avoid the Indian call centers by not buying new machines or software upgrades. Kodachrome went for 70 years without a change and that’s the way I like it. I presume that any teen forced to walk a mile in my shoes (OMG!) would succumb to the steadily depressin’, low-down mind-messin’, coping-with-throwback-techno blues.