Burke: Great thing about high tech? Getting it a la carte

Yes, much of it — smartphones, streaming and playlists — is great, but there’s a lot I just don’t need.

By Tom Burke / Herald columnist

I am not unfamiliar with tech. I can turn my computer on. And off! I can put it to sleep, surf the net, email and even resist click-bait no matter how enticing.

And I’ve pretty much figured out my phone; when it rings, I answer it. I can take and download pictures and text messages. (Interesting side note, a recent survey uncovered a Grand Canyon-scale cultural divide: millennials say, “If it’s important I’ll text. If it isn’t I’ll just call.” Non-millennials, like me, say, “If it’s really important, of course I’ll call;” and, conversely, “It ain’t no big deal, I’ll just text.” As Kipling said, “Never the ‘twain shall meet.”

Now, I joined Facebook years ago. (Out of complete naivete. Everybody was doing it. It was the Next Big Thing.) But I hardly ever look at it now and never post. (Instagram and most other social media don’t get a nano-second of my time or a byte of memory).

On my tablet I can play Solitaire as well as read The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Herald, the Seattle Times, Axios, Fox News, Politico and CNN online; and I joined a couple of the forums particular to my hobbies.

I’ve figured out the cable remote (mostly) and subscribe to Netflix, Amazon, and Disney+; but HBO Max, with its secret, on-screen codes that need to be entered onto my phone, are still an unresolved mystery.

Finally, I’ve taken a pass on Ring, Nest, Weemo, and Xbox.

And then there’s Alexa.

For me, it’s mostly a music box.

I don’t use it for a “smart home” tasks, ordering from Amazon or placing phone calls.

But last week I had a breakthrough. A virtual revelation. Saul on the road to Damascus (OK, that’s a slight exaggeration), but I learned how to create an Alexa playlist, add songs, and play them back!

Welcome to the 21st century, Burke.

Now I suspect, with work, I could probably become truly tech savvy. I could learn how to Roomba instead of vacuum; connect the computer to the TV; and make all sorts of interwebs magic with little X’s and O’s and excited electrons.

But why?

I’m not a Luddite. Stocking frames and other 19th century textile machinery have nothing to fear from me. I embrace the ease and convenience today’s tech offers.

But saying, “Alexa, WeMo on,” doesn’t seem a great improvement over flicking a light switch. And my programmable thermostat (it came standard on the heat pump we purchased) seems sufficient, so avoiding the additional labor of manually setting it’s off and on functions doesn’t seem to merit the additional cost of a AI thermostat that “learns.”

Bluetooth is simple enough, but my watch still has “hands,” a round, numbered dial, and I can tell at a glance it’s later than it’s ever been.

As we balance our bank balance against convenience we’ve also decided to forego a GPS pet tracker, Bluetooth-enabled Rubik’s cube, a smart watch that reads out heart rates, dissolved blood oxygen, the number of steps from my desk to the fridge and phone notifications.

I had a flip phone, but was told it was outdated and I needed something newer. (Now, flip phones are back? Better than ever?) And the world is real enough what with covid, Congress, oil spills, wildfires, China, the Jan. 6 insurrection, the debt ceiling, Roe v. Wade, Trump getting kicked off the Forbes rich list, supply chain breakdowns, and, and, and … and I don’t think I’m ready to add a virtual reality to my real reality.

In sum, tech is great, but fraught with danger. And Big Tech — like the long-ago targets (big energy, meat packers, big banks and finance, Jim Crow laws, the right to work, and political machines) of early 20th century muckrakers such as Ida Tarbell, Frank Norris, and Upton Sinclair — clearly needs reining in.

The original muckraker/American Progressive movement (1896–1920) was rooted in social justice and political reform. Today’s Progressive movement is as well.

And while today’s Progressives aren’t fighting the Rockefellers of Standard Oil they are fighting Trump and McConnell and the Republican Big Lie and Charles Koch’s crusade to curtail voting rights.

What Republicans and MAGAs find so threatening with progressive policies such as child care, paid leave, expanded health care, affordable housing, pre-k, community college, climate action, and a road map to citizenship for Dreamers is beyond me.

But “socialism,” they scream; “communism,” they bellow, and they echo the reactionaries from the first quarter of the 20th century. (Which history proved Oh. So. Wrong.)

So as the battle is waged across the political spectrum I’m gonna keep up my fight to conquer tech; and whisper to Alexa, “Play my song list of 1960s rock n roll.” As the Buffalo Springfield sang in 1967:

“There’s something happening here; What it is ain’t exactly clear. …”

Tom Burke’s email address is t.burke.column@gmail.com.

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