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Category: Culture

I Don't Want a Smartphone
Hell, I don’t even want a cell phone. Oh, I admit that I sometimes use my wife’s. After all, if you want to talk to someone right now, it’s pretty hard to beat a cell phone. Assuming they pick up, that is. It could be made even better, I suppose, if I could somehow break into a person’s thoughts without permission and insert my message then and there. That’s not possible, but it’s coming — probably very soon.

Back to the smartphone: I really don’t want one, but now it appears that I need to get one. The only reason I now need something I didn’t need before is that so many other people wanted to get one. They didn’t need it the way they need food, or shelter, or love; they wanted it because it was more convenient than a cell phone and it was cool — the latest thing. There are now a hundred and fifty million people using these things in the U.S. Thanks to this proliferation, the technologies that smartphones usurp, including pay phones, are harder and harder to find. I have to get one, if only in self-defense. Other peoples' convenience has been turned into my necessity.

I am a little concerned that the more digital crap we have, the more we’re going to be offered, and the more we’re going to consume. That spiral will continue until the whole mess collapses, and we’re back to banging rocks together and living in caves. But that’s not my issue here. I’m a pawn in this technological takeover; I know I can’t stand against the tide. I am not, however, a totally helpless pawn. The one bit of defiance I allow myself is to make the takeover of my life by machines as inexpensive as possible.

My first rule is never to buy anything when it is the latest thing. My most notable success with this approach was to completely bypass the cart machine epoch. Cart machines, if you don’t know, were the music playback technology that existed between vinyl records and cassettes. I never bought one, I never had to “recycle” one, and I’m still feeling good about it. I have resolved to relive that gratifying experience over and over with each new gizmo that hits the market.

This approach does involve some patience, but I am fortified by my natural cheapness. If a product has any long-term usefulness at all, it will be costliest when it is the latest thing and cheapest when it’s been done to death. The wider the usage, the lower the price. If I had bought one of the first Macintoshes, for instance, I would no doubt have exchanged it for one or all of its other brief incarnations before things settled down with the iMac. As it is, I saved a lot of money, got a better computer, and never got left behind.

It appears that we have reached that moment with the smartphone. Everybody’s got one, the prices have come down, the quality has gone up, and those seeking the latest thing have moved on to iPads and their ilk. I guess I can find some satisfaction, at least, in having skipped the cell phone stage altogether, but I still don’t want a smartphone.

I’m getting one, though. The time is right. I have come to terms with the fact that I am participating in the annihilation of civilization. I know that some day the seeds I have sewn by caving into the short-term convenience offered by these technologies will sprout and devour us all. I take my share of the responsibility; like most of us, I have sold out my species and my planet. In my defense, let me just say that I got the lowest possible price.
Just So You Know
Just so you know, a dedicated cyber thief could easily hack into your computer. He could steal your identity, drain your assets, and ruin your life. He could destroy everything you’ve worked for and care about. He could get away with it, and you’d be helpless to stop him.

Still, you gotta love computers.

Anyway, just so you know.
Face of the Franchise
Let’s say you’re the founder and CEO of a company that advertises on TV, and you’re thinking of casting yourself in the role of pitchman for your product. For starters, you think, I wouldn’t have to pay somebody else to do it. And besides (you might say to your team), who could resist my charm, my good looks, and my knack of always being right? Right?

Before you commit to this plan, however, perhaps it would be worth your time to look at the track records of others who have similarly stepped into the spotlight. Their experiences, if you ask people outside of their inner circles, are spotty at best.

John Schnatter, the founder and now spokesman for Papa John’s Pizza, is one of the most prominent examples. He’s all over the tube during football season, and he is the lead actor in all of his ads. Some of his ads feature him laughing during outtakes with his fellow actors. This is a bad sign; some one on his ad staff, seeing that Schnatter was not particularly likable on camera, probably stitched those scenes into his ads in an effort to show that the boss is a regular guy. It doesn’t work; I don’t like John Schnatter, and I’m not going to be buying any of his pizza.

Yes, I understand that these are matters of personal taste. You may think he’s a good fellow and that I am some kind of cranky misanthrope. I won’t argue that point. I am simply reporting the news from my own viscera, and in the case of Papa John Schnatter, the news is not good.

On the other hand, I do like like Jim Koch. He’s the guy you see in Sam Adams beer ads. Maybe it’s because the ads feature him as a genial doofus being dunked in tubs of beer for charity’s sake and such, or maybe it’s because I like his product. It doesn’t matter. My viscera reports to me that he is a much more likable person than Papa John. He might be an S.O.B. in real life, but all I’ve got to go on is his TV persona.

Some other visceral reports: Dave Thomas, founder and one-time spokesguy for Wendy’s: passable. Same goes for his replacement and daughter, Wendy Thomas. Domino’s J. Patrick Doyle: almost, but not quite. Richard Branson, the Virgin guy: okay, I guess; you gotta love the space tourism thing. Ralph Lauren: bogosity incarnate, even without speaking.

There is also a class of ads that appear mostly on local TV. These feature owners pushing their products with wacky costumes and silly hijinks. I have never bought anything from these people, and I never will. That’s right: my decision is based solely on their ads. I don’t want their roofing services, their furniture, or their large home appliances, irrespective of their price or quality.

Finally, let me mention one C.E.O. whose main product seems to be himself. Or rather, let me not mention him, because I don’t want to give him any more notoriety than he already has. He reflects something ugly and repugnant in our culture, and I’m not buying into any of it. So there. I’ll leave you to guess who he is. Keyword: loathsome.

It may be that you and your team are right, and you are indeed charming and likable. It may be that your style and appearance will play well on television. However, if you are not certain that you are getting honest opinions from your inner circle, if you suspect that you might be even be repellent to potential customers, then please take a deep breath before you dive in. Or better yet, send me a demo tape; I’d be happy to offer my assessment — as a member of the cranky misanthrope demographic.
According to Aristotle, there is an ideal form for every object, and it exists, conceptually, within all objects that claim to be true manifestations of that ideal form. For automobiles, that ideal is a ’53 Chevrolet Business Coupe.

It’s bright blue-green, so painted to conceal its previous identity as a captain’s car in the fleet of the California Highway Patrol. It never let me down, and although it would not count as a technological wonder when compared to our modern, computer-managed cars, it could teach those modern marvels a few lessons it in its role as the ideal form.

Its most striking feature is its shape: round, feminine, lovely. The shape of today’s cars, by contrast, has been dictated by practicality, or so they would have you believe. The teardrop profile now seen in almost every vehicle is the product of an effort to promote superior aerodynamics. I know these engineers are just trying to help, but practicality has bought us stultifying sameness from top to bottom. Nowadays, you can’t tell a Maserati from a Mazda. I never had any trouble distinguishing my Chevy from its cousins, the Buicks and Pontiacs, much less from Fords and Desotos. All were round, and some were lovely, but none looked like any of the others. More importantly, they gave the impression of aerodynamics — a much more satisfying attribute than a low coefficient of drag. Cars used to be art; now they are little more than the creations of other machines.

Beyond the drive to enhance (perceived) practicality, there is also the unrelenting pressure to make things new and exciting. As with most of the “advances” made since the Golden Age of the automobile in the 1950s, however, new does not necessarily mean better.

Take the horn. On my Chevy, the big, obvious button was right in the middle of the steering wheel, as it was on all cars. If there was an emergency need to honk, my hand — all our hands — knew exactly what to do, without thought or visual confirmation of the button’s whereabouts. Today’s horn could be anywhere; it is merely one of a dizzying array of buttons that might activate anything from your clock to your cruise control reset. In an emergency, when fractions of a second are often critical, the time for action might easily slip by — leaving you to be smeared like a bloody booger across eight lanes on the interstate.

I am sorry to be so rough with you, but these are life-and-death issues we are dealing with. The high beam button is another of these. There was a time (in 1953) when high beams were activated or deactivated by a button on the floorboard. It was situated to the left of the gas, brake, and clutch pedals, and it was operated by the ball of the left foot. Why was this perfectly good system abandoned? As with the horn, this button was moved to the edge of the steering wheel; as with the horn, it is now in a different place in every vehicle; and, as with the horn, it now takes extra thought and time to use. These changes were made in the name of practicality, but in reality they only serve the mindless mandate of novelty — mindless and deadly. This is particularly true in this era of halogen headlights, which (I have been told) can cause blindness in those unlucky enough to stare at them head-on.

The misguided quest for the new harms us in subtler ways as well. More often than not, the changes rob us of our competence to drive by shunting vital functions away from the driver and into the car. Cruise control, GPS, obnoxious warning alarms, and (stop the madness!) self-parking cars all fall into this category. Why not go all the way and simply let the cars go out and drive themselves while we stay home relaxing like those poor schlubs in The Matrix?

It would be easy, I know, to dismiss these insights as the kvetchings of a grumpy old fartknocker. I plead guilty to that charge, including the part about fartknocking, but I do not take offense. People have to do something to make themselves feel better about the creeping takeover of their lives by machines; I get that.

But one would do well to remember that Aristotle himself was a bit of a grumpy old fartknocker. His work De Charioti (now lost) outlines his observations on similar matters with respect to the vehicles of his time. I am confident, in fact, that were he alive today, Ari would choose to roll on wheels quite similar to my ideal form. Perhaps in something a bit more suited to his station: I see him in a top-of-the-line Bel Air Convertible, baby blue with white trim. Yes, there he is, conducting driver’s training with the young Alexander the Great, or just cruising the main with the top down on the streets of ancient Mieza — while Plato, riding shotgun, moons a Packard full of Peloponnesians. That, indeed, would be the ideal in its fully fleshed-out form.
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Trump supporters are people who know what they believe.
~ JC, Bonny Doon