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False Promises

April 10, 2011

Have you ever stopped to think about all the miraculous time- and energy-saving devices you have at your disposal?  Or – like most people – do you just take them for granted?  Change is such an intrinsic part of our everyday lives we rarely stop to consider where things came from or how they’ve changed our lives (for better or for worse).  SPECIAL NOTE: for a positively enlightening, refreshing, and occasionally humorous look at the history of everyday objects in and around our homes, Bill Bryson’s book, “At Home”, is a must-read.

Rotary Dial PhoneThe other day I happened across an article that mentioned rotary dial telephones, and I remembered the time (about 1989 or 90) when my eldest son asked if he could call a friend from his grandmother’s house and she directed him to the telephone in her living room. He stood, dumbstruck, for several moments before he finally asked, ‘How does it work?’  You see, my mother had won a beige rotary dial telephone in a contest many, many (MANY) years before (when few people actually owned a telephone; instead you paid a monthly rental fee to the phone company for each phone you had installed), and she was still using it. (NOTE: my son eventually went to the basement to use the more ‘modern’ push button Mickey Mouse phone my brother had bought for my parents as a ‘gag’ gift; I’m not sure either of them had ever actually used it!) 

1950s SwitchboardAnyway, that got me thinking about how long it used to take to make a telephone call on a rotary dial phone (I estimate it took up to 3 seconds per number for you to stick your finger in the hole, rotate it all the way to the right, and then wait for it to return to its starting point; the average phone number in those days was 7 digits, so the total dialling time would have been approximately 20 seconds), and how much time we saved when ‘touch tone’ service came along (you can push all 7 buttons in about 3 seconds), and again with memory dial (2 buttons – ‘speed dial’ and the number – would take just over a second).  (And if we go ‘way back’ to the time when you used to have to connect to a switchboard operator and give her a number and wait for her to connect you to your ‘party’ … well, you can see how far we’ve come!)

But that got me to thinking about all the ‘time-saving’ and ‘labour-saving’ devices that have come down the pike in the past fifty-plus years (i.e., in my lifetime) and how these changes have supposedly made our lives ‘better’. And I started to wonder … is it true?

I’ve already mentioned advances in communication (‘telephone’) technologies.  Judging by the number of people with cell phones almost permanently attached to their ears (and/or their thumbs), we’re actually spending MORE time using the ‘telephone’ than ever before. Increasing the speed at which we can reach people certainly hasn’t reduced the time we spend ‘on the phone’ (never mind the time wasted trying to manoeuvre our way through those damned automated answering systems – whatever happened to the concept of ‘customer service’ anyway?!?!?) 

Banking in the 1960sSpeaking of customer service, when I was young, I used to accompany my mother to the bank, where you were served by one of several friendly tellers who sat at ‘wickets’.  Most banks now have no more than one or maybe two tellers on at a time, and expressly urge us to use ATMs and online banking sites to ‘save time and enhance the banking experience’.  But the line ups at the ATMs are often longer than the lines used to be at the wickets, and there are a LOT of people who dawdle over their e-transactions (why don’t they get organized BEFORE they get to the machine?!?!?) and keep the rest of us waiting.  And while I admit that I was an early adopter of online banking and love it, I spend a significant amount of time double-checking my accounts to ensure deposits are made and payments withdrawn in a timely fashion, and that no one has stolen my identity and/or scammed me electronically! And, of course, trying to connect with a real person if you have a problem can be extremely time-consuming (and next to impossible)!

Full Service Gas Station circa 1960Gas stations are the same – does anyone remember when you’d pull in and a service station attendant would pump your gas, clean your windshield, and check your oil for you?  Now you have do it all yourself and end up with the smell of gasoline on your hands and clothes, streaks on your windshield because the water in the dispenser hasn’t been changed in several days, and a lingering uncertainty about the state of your oil level – and you still have to wait ten minutes or more to pay for your purchase because there are three people in front of you buying hot dogs, several bags of chips, a chocolate bar, an extra large Slushie, and sixteen lottery tickets.

Old Wringer WasherNow, let’s go ‘home’.  In the 50s and early 60s, my mother washed clothes using a wringer washing machine and dried them on a drying rack and/or a clothesline (even in the winter she’d put diapers and sheets outside on the line; after she brought them in, she’d thaw them out by hanging them on the hot water radiators in every room – the smell of damp flannel permeated the house from October through March).  We had a single, small black and white TV that received six channels, a dial radio, a wind up alarm clock, a hand cranked can opener, a kettle that heated water only if you put it on a burner on the stove, a toaster with ‘wings’ on either side (for the bread) that you opened and closed manually, a corkscrew with a handle on top you turned in and pulled out using nothing more than brute strength, a (push-it-yourself) carpet sweeper, and five kids who washed and dried dishes, took out the garbage, and mowed the lawn (with a rotary push mower).  You knew how things worked, and generally they worked pretty well and lasted for years and years (few parts, limited complexity).

Antique Push Lawn MowerFamilies now have automatic washers and dryers – few people hang clothes on out the line anymore (in some cities and/or neighbourhoods, its actually ILLEGAL to use one – something about them being unsightly), multiple colour televisions with hundreds of channels and built-in recording devices, digital clock radios in every room, machines that open cans, heat water, toast all manner of food stuffs (or excite their molecules until they cook themselves), remove corks from wine bottles, suck dirt (even automatically) from floors and carpets, wash dishes, compact or masticate garbage, and mow the lawn (I recently saw a remote control lawnmower on a science show!)  ‘New and improved’ models for just about every product come out every six months or so, and planned obsolescence is a given (check the warranty that comes with the item – if it says ‘two year warranty’ you can pretty much be guaranteed it will break down in approximately 25 months!)  So we might be saving time (and perhaps ‘labour’) but we’re spending a whole heck of a lot more money operating and keeping up with the latest, greatest appliances and gadgets – most of which can’t be repaired – they must be replaced (and all those ‘outdated’ and no-longer-working items end up in the local landfill – and that’s not good for the environment, which isn’t good for us!)  

Library Reference StacksOf course, the most life-altering ‘technology’ to come along in the last twenty or so years is ‘The Internet’ (and its offspring, ‘The Web’).  Now, when you need to check a fact, do a little research, or verify a source, all you have to do is sit down at your computer (another mind-numbingly life-altering device), pop open your browser and find the nugget of information you were looking for. No more getting dressed, getting in the car and commuting to the library with its card files and its stacks and stacks of reference books – and its ambiance and atmosphere of culture and knowledge … no sirree.  A few seconds on Google and you have everything you need.  But – hey – wait a minute, this looks interesting.  Wow – let’s check this out.  And – wait – what’s this? A video. Cool.  Oh, and here’s something funny.  And … two hours have gone by and I bet you still haven’t verified that source, have you?

Technology – in all its manifestations and embodiments – is awesome. Don’t get me wrong.  I appreciate everything that it provides for us – individually and as a society.  But have all the changes – the ‘advances’ – really made our lives ‘better’? Have all the devices we can’t seem to do without really saved us time, energy, labour?  If so, where’s the much-touted ‘leisure time’ we were all supposed to get more of by using them? Were those just false promises?

I suppose it takes me less time to do laundry, wash dishes, and pay my bills than it took my mother.  I’m sure I ‘save time’ not having to look up telephone numbers or synonyms in a paper-based phone book or thesaurus.  And as much as I love visiting the Library (and do so regularly), I can’t imagine not being able to check quick facts or find odd bits of information with no more than the click of a mouse.  I just wish that all this technology really, honestly, truly did provide me with extra time – so I could squeeze in just a little more of the leisure they promised would result from their use.  Because I really could use it, now that I’ve reached … the other side of 55.

Leisure Time

How I'd spend all that leisure time ... if only I had it!

  1. June 24, 2012 8:36 am

    I am not quite on the other side of 55 but I clearly remember the above. I found your article while searching for a picture of a wringer washer; my grandmother used to use one. I am going to provide a link to your post in my blog for June 26/12.

    • June 24, 2012 9:12 am

      Thanks for the comment, Lisa. I wrote three additional posts about ‘the good old days’ and the advances of technology (“When I Was Your Age: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3“). Things certainly have changed in the past 50 or so years. I’ll check out your blog as well.



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