All Things Bright and Shiny

by Tom Bentley
Copyright 2000, Tom Bentley


Maybe it all started with Odd Ogg. The Ogg was a toy of mine, a big-eyed plastic hump that looked a bit like a colorful, smiling bowling-ball washer you'd see in an alley from years past. Ogg's raison d'etre was a lesson in behavior modification: roll a ball right down the pipe into the center of Odd Ogg's large flapping mouth and he'd move agreeably toward you, shortening the distance for your next attempt. If your toss was off target, Ogg would issue a loud mechanical Bronx cheer, and move back a distance, ready to mock your next effort.

I spent long hours fascinated by the simple interactions the Ogg offered, trying all manner of wall banks, behind the back and between-the-legs shots. For my undeveloped tastes, Ogg had a agreeable "gadgetness" that met many of my perfect toy requisites. Things haven't changed much--I'd probably buy an Odd Ogg today if it could get email.

So, this is a song of gadget love, though there is one muted, harmony-breaking minor key: that little inner voice, often readily ignored, that says: "Do you really need that damn thing?" But what minor key can stand up to a chorus of "Wow! That's really cool,"--even if you're talking about an Internet-enabled refrigerator.

What is it about today's devices that makes certain tongues drop and wallets flutter? Or maybe looking at the devices for the answers begs the real question: what mental or physical mechanism makes gizmos so fascinating to certain personalities, so much so they seem smitten with them, and then abandon them as soon as the next pretty face comes by? Technolust is the term that seems closest to what I'm getting at.

At some elemental level, it's the old crow-with-a-shiny-object thing. The technoidal marketeers that came up with the design of the Palm V nailed it: even if you only used one for a glorified address book, it has a high glitter factor. Certainly its sleek gleam wouldn't turn every buyer's head, but it's definitely got that big gee-whiz (translation: that's cool) going for it. Handhelds really can have a significant utility for both business and personal practice, but I suspect a fair percentage of their users fall for their physical charms.

I know. I've owned two Palms, and have long fought a strong hankering to dump my Palm III in favor of the Palm V ever since it came out. But then that urge had to fight with the lure of the Internet-enabled Palm VII, which would be even more enticing with a Palm keyboard; and how could you not add a nice case and matching stylii? After all, the better screen resolution of the newer Palms will make me more productive, right? And color screens are soon to come. Those voices in your head can keep you up at night.

But it's not merely that something shiny and new completely disconnects your higher brain functions. It's more that, new or old, the physicality (and your mental syncing with it) of certain things just resonates. Besides just the superficial provocativeness of newness, the objects of desire need to have a certain inherent pith, something akin to what Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance called quality--knowing what was good and what was not good, in an almost metaphysical way. (Of course, Tom Robbins made a pretty good pitch for the innate soul of cheap plastic transistor radios in, I think, Another Roadside Attraction.)

No matter what zippy new car comes out, few of them can rest next to a shiny 60s XKE without looking a mite shabby. And whatever laser torch might soon appear, it still won't make those original Maglite flashlights lose their original luster. Whether it's a groomed racehorse at full gallop or an Erte champagne flute, some things just have that certain something. The bigger problem for me is when they're on a retail shelf.

I worry that this discussion might be limited to the scope of "boys with toys." I hesitate before making broad generalizations, but there does seem to be a distinct divide between the sexes in regards their enthusiasms for gadgets. Many, many women I know are fully at home in our technical times, but most don't seem to share what seems to be a male intrigue with gizmos: talking about them, wanting the ones your friends own, being able to crow about where to get the best deal on one.

Frequenting the Palm user groups online, you can often read of men talking about using their infrared-enabled Palms for silly pranks, like surreptitiously changing channels on televisions at restaurant bars. When it came out that it might be possible to use a Palm to disable car alarms and locks, many men talked about wanting to try it on strangers' cars in parking lots. I didn't read any postings from women with this same kind of braggadocio.

A couple of Christmases ago I was given a miniature helium blimp that could be controlled by a radio transmitter. It can be maneuvered all over the house with a handheld controller. It struck me that when I brought it out among guests, it seemed that the men would really try to get the thing to perform, but the women were amusedly indifferent. However, the female kids were just as eager to play with it as the males. Is there some kind of socialization process that steers interest in such things in a gender-defined direction? Or is there a some hard-wired hormone that kicks in at a certain age, moving women more toward Sense and Sensibility, and men more toward senselessness--at least when it comes to gadgets?

Manufacturers might be conscious of that now, and try to hook the kids, boys or girls, right away. The recent American International Toy Fair in New York was filled with electronic gadgets for kids, with a special pavilion dedicated to high-tech toys. Several companies displayed devices that allow children to beam messages back and forth using radio frequencies or infrared technology. For example, the Cybiko "Wireless Entertainment System" is a handheld device that includes wireless chat, e-mail and a personal planner. The system lets kids send messages to a select group of friends, and includes built-in video games.

Other kids' toy trends include robotic dogs and digital music players. And several companies are coming out with toys that can be "updated" by downloading new files and information from the Net. Odd Ogg wouldn't have a chance today. I'm glad I don't have kids, so that I don't have to hear them pining for such devices. Or perhaps so that they don't have to hear me.

More troubling yet to me is my consciousness of how far the technolust infection takes me from a non-consumer lifestyle that I tout in my head. There was a Voluntary Simplicity Conference at Santa Clara Convention Center recently, where Ernest Callenbach, author of Living Cheaply with Style said, "We are surrounded by objects from the time we wake up until the time we go to sleep. The objects you surround yourself with ought to be the things that seriously matter to you. If the object doesn't carry emotional weight, you can live without it."

Compelling words, and paradoxically enough, I identify with the "less is more" movement--I think it's ridiculous that we can choose from 75 brands of deodorant; that there are action figures, dishware and underwear for the newest Disney movie hero choking the checkout counter a week before the movie's release; that packages for many products are more package than product. The collective madness of our culture at Christmas is frightening in its product-centricity. But I still want that damn Palm V.

I'm swept off my practical feet by the perfume of the gleaming machine, but I always want to steady myself and not fall prey to focus on mammon and useless accumulation. Or I want to flatter myself and say that I'm practicing F. Scott Fitzgerald's dictum that "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in the mind at the same time, and still retain the ability to function." But I suspect I'm like anyone else: put it in the right package, and I'll buy it, and think about it later. Am I practicing voluntary simplicity if I use my Palm barefoot?

And I fear that all these devices to keep us more wired aren't making communication any easier, at least on a qualitative basis. Do I really want to be communicating with my refrigerator, even if it does have a digital readout that tells me when my milk is spoiled? When I asked Mary Sue Weldon, associate professor of psychology at UC Santa Cruz, to comment on my technolust concept, she said, "People may use technology to avoid face-to-face interactions, and I am concerned that this impairs the development of appropriate social skills for handling conflict, disagreements, and difficult situations. It is interesting that many years ago, before phones and cars and planes, people depended on letters to communicate many important things, and writing was more of an art. But I haven't noticed much artistic merit in most of the e-mail I write or receive--everyone is in too much of a hurry to pay much attention to crafting carefully constructed letters."

Professor Weldon went on to say that she was "...concerned about the anonymity and personal distance permitted by electronic communications. While this can have benefits, such as connecting people across geographic and political boundaries, there is also the risk that people do not exert appropriate control over what they say and how they treat other people. I've been shocked by the vitriol of some of the dialogues I've read in chat rooms, even over such trivial things as characters on soap operas. In a society growing increasingly autonomous and anonymous, we need to pay more attention to developing effective skills in interpersonal communication and conflict resolution."

Indeed, a study released in August 1998 by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University said people who spent a few or more hours a week online grew slightly more depressed and lonely as they used the Internet.

Yes, we all know of what they speak: fancier digital communications devices, less quality of communication. More time-saving devices, less time. But I'm thinking that if I just get one of those multifunction devices, so that I can dump the separate printer and fax machine and combine them with a scanner, all in one, my communications will be more compactly packaged. It's my version of the Unified Field Theory--it slices, dices and looks so pretty on the desktop. The promise of these things hijacks your limbic system.

In my mind, I only have a mild case of gizmoitis. Before the digital age, I remember knowing some real audiophiles who had to have turntable needles that cost hundreds of dollars. When they'd throw terms like impedance around, I was lost. But we both heard the same siren song when we'd see things like those amazing-looking Bang and Olufsen high-end audio devices that didn't seem to have any visible controls. Their polished Bauhaus simplicity held a kind of shared-secret promise: if you owned these, you were among the select few. You had inner knowledge. You had a very expensive product. You'd better let other people know you have it.

Of course nowadays, it's hard to brag about your 700MHz Pentium, when you know that its processor will be thought a sluggish oaf in six month's time. The things themselves change, but does our relationship with them evolve? I fear I'll continue to want, and when the want is met, want something else. I read that a couple of new BMWs will have wireless Internet connections as part of the standard package. One of the new Jaguars has an overhead microphone that lets you issue voice commands to change the radio station or adjust the climate control. It will never end.

Maybe I still have a shred of sanity: I do continue to hate seeing weaving drivers talk on their cell phones. Watching exhibitions of whacked-out driving by ear-encumbered cellular carriers does make me think those reports of cell phones causing brain damage might have something to them. But I wonder about my own brain damage. At least my acquisitive urges still conjure a twinge of self-embarrassment (a weirdly voyeuristic combination of amusement and shame) when I give in to gizmoitis. Rationalization is the key brain supplement, not ginkgo biloba.

For example, I recently replaced a perfectly useful compact cassette recorder that I use in my work for a slick digital recorder. I worked it out in my mind that the digital recorder made a cleaner transfer to my hard drive for transcription, and that the moving parts of the cassette recorder were more subject to a failure during an important recording. Both of those declarations are true; however, I'd never had a problem with clean transcription from the cassette, nor a cassette failure. I simply coveted the digital recorder's remarkably small, sleek looks--any crow would have liked it.

Maybe I can make a pact with the digital demon--I might get a CD changer in the trunk, but I'll install it in a 60s Caddy. I'll upgrade my Palm, but use it only to read essays by Mark Twain. With the digital camera I want, I'll only take pictures of endangered species, to alert the world. And I don't need a Java ring for my finger or a watch that interfaces with my computer--but if I don't get those, can I get that toaster with the integrated DVD player?

I know in my heart that these things are just ephemeral dross, life's luggage, assets that imply the ass behind them. None of them will ever be as pretty as the petal of a rose; they can't captivate the consciousness, as could a fabulous violin solo; they are emotionally stillborn when compared with the whispers of a lover, but, but... oh well, I'll negotiate with myself one day at a time, as the saying goes. Do let me know if you see an Odd Ogg on eBay--I think with the right add-ons, it might be networkable.