In the Gadgeteer’s Dreamland

How unpleasant, if not annoying, it is to have to live like a goofy in this gadgeteer’s dreamland!

No doubt, America is the world’s most imaginative, most innovative society. Almost all recent scientific discoveries have been made in this country. It has also produced the highest number of contraptions and gizmos to turn it into a gadgeteer’s dreamland. But, for a person who is not a software, hardware or a medium-ware engineer, not even a dropout of a technical training school, who may charitably be called ‘technologically disadvantaged’, life in this dreamland is like a labyrinth for a reincarnated Don Quixote.

Anything new generally attracts the same attention of the novelty-struck Americans as a newborn baby does for the first time grandparents. They willingly shell out large sums to get something new that is claimed to save effort and add to the convenience of life. Here is a beauty I read about some time ago:

Shoe Flashlight. A handy helper for the night watchmen, tunnel dwellers, the near blind, explorers, bat-keepers and the like, is this novel shoe fitted with its own ‘toe-light’. This clever invention harnesses the natural power of the foot and leg in walking. An insulated clamp fits over the leg just below the knee, holding in place an asbestos sock with open-toe construction to allow six wires, three positive and three negative, to coil around the bare toes. A simple generator under the foot arch is linked to the big toe and hooked up with these wires as well as to the 2-watt bulb of the shoe light by a short insulated cable. Back-and forth movement of the foot and pumping motions of the leg are sufficient to direct steady current to the bulb; electrocution while running is rare.

Another inventor came out with a pocket watch with built in chambers for salt and pepper and a grove for a gold-plated toothpick. This contraption, assured its promoters, weighed less than two ounces. It did not sell much in California, as the sparsely dressed people of this sunny state have generally no pocket to spare for even such a precious convenience.

But, the person who offered a permanent steel coat hanger and a cigarette lighter, both for one buck did fairly well. A week after remitting the money, one received a small envelope containing a nail and a cardboard matchbook!

These small-time operators do not really bother much. Annoying are those youngish-looking digital wizards who arrive in this country with $35 or so in their pockets and hit millions within a couple of years. They put on the market some digital invention and the chief of this tribe of wizards opens his ‘gates’ of wealth to pay a measly sum of say $100 million to annex the invention to his empire. He earns many times more in no time as he makes it an integral part of his products so that the buyers are faced with the Hobson’s choice of paying for this inseparable ‘facility’ too. What a legally authorized, universally acclaimed, gang of pickpockets!

This is called hi-technology. How high it is? One has to comprehend it through similes. One billion one-dollar bills if piled one over the other, I am told, would be higher than the Empire Estate Building. It does not require much of an imagination to work out how many such sky-scrappers could erect the over sixty billion dollars of the Mafia chief’s pile.

While the providers of the digital innovations have expanded vertically, the users have expanded horizontally. The marvelous digital facilities have reduced human efforts to the fingers only. They become strong. The rest of the human figure sits plump, hour after hour, hunkered down in front of the computer screen accumulating layer over layer of fat mainly at the girth.

Thanks to the labor-saving devices, including the facility of fast food, sixty per cent of Americans have become obese. Some have expanded to the extent of eliminating the difference between their length and breadth. You wouldn’t know where they begin or where they end.

Many jog, spend an hour working out and perspiring at the gym, swim or surf to make up for the physical effort saved by modern technologies. The fast food chains are as much in hot business as are the gyms. Both remain open around the clock. The input and output work out to a zero sum for the consumer.

The apprehension associated with a telegram is gone. When the bellboy rings the doorbell, he is there now mostly to deliver a pizza you had ordered. Gone is the pleasure of waiting for a friend’s letter in the afternoon mail; his message comes in terse language over the e-mail. The sentimental touches, the confidential whispers in a sealed personal letter have disappeared. The postman now brings mainly “trash mail”: ads, coupons, requests for donations, or the unwelcome bills. Being a non-entity, there is little chance of your receiving even an anthrax-coated letter.

Some of my Islamabad friends keep sending letters since they lack the Internet facilities. I can’t describe the thrill I get reading their gossipy letters in Urdu. They have an acute sense of rumor. Often their rumors are later on confirmed officially.

Invention is the mother of necessity in this gadgeteer’s dreamland. Mark Twain had put it differently: “The man with a new idea is a crank until the idea succeeds.” No matter what the real worth of an idea, the modern tools of persuasion can turn it into a great success, almost a necessity. Remember how people were made to buy avidly, a few decades back, small colored stones as pets.

Society is divided into two classes: the shearers and the shorn, or between those who get more than they earn, and those who earn more than they get. The scientists make you live longer so that you can pay back all that you owe to their co-professionals – the inventors and their marketing wizards.

Let me hasten to add that I do enjoy many inventions: the microwave oven for instance. When I brought home in Islamabad such a unit some twenty years back, my cook and I both searched for the coils emitting heat into it. He might have since figured it out; I haven’t.

Another instrument I like is the telephone. But, I find it to be the greatest nuisance among conveniences and the greatest convenience among nuisances. Most of the time it rings for someone else in the house. Some times it rings for the wrong number, but the querulous lady at the other end says: “Well, if I called the wrong number, why did you answer?” That is when I realize how blissful was the quietude of the pre-telephone era.

A similar love-hate relationship exists between the television and me. I feel like actor/director Orson Welles who said: “I hate TV. I hate it as much as peanuts. But, I can’t stop eating peanuts.” I also agree with architect Frank Lloyd who described television as the chewing gum for the eye.

I have always enjoyed driving my car but never in the company of a back seat driver. A new invention has put such an invisible person somewhere right next to your seat. When you activate this gizmo called the navigator, a road map appears on a small screen on the panel and an attractive voice of a lady starts guiding you to your destination. If you miss turning at a crossing, the voice would say, ” Oh, oh, you missed turning here; keep in the left lane for three blocks and then take a U-turn and come back to this crossing and then go west.” I would say, “No, thank you” to this device, as I do not want to be led by an unknown entity or be deprived of the pleasure of losing my way and calling my hosts on the phone to guide me to their house. How useful and satisfied they feel when I appear intact at their door. Yet, of late I am getting lost so very often that I wish I had this device with me. If nothing else, it would make me feel that I am not alone in the car. This feeling confirms the veracity of the contention that invention is the mother of necessity. The gadegteer’s dreamland has, after all, its positive aspects too!