This Techno-life: to simplify or not to simplify!

Oct 30, 2022
Urban city scene in Sydney converted to black and white with selective red colour isolated on the old telephone booth.

Understanding the difference between “needs” and “wants” is an essential lesson in the quest for simplicity.

In 1960, when I was a keen ten-year-old Cub Scout, one of the proficiency badges I cherished was the “Telephone Badge”, which I wore proudly among a host of others on the left shoulder of my uniform. This was earned after I had undergone extensive training by Akela (our cub-mistress) in the operation and etiquette involved in the use of the common household telephone. For years thereafter the words I uttered every time I picked up our home phone were: “Lipscomb residence: Adrian speaking. How may I help you?”

Those were simpler times – before the advent of mobile phones, before the internet, and before the proliferation of social media. If we rang someone, and the call was answered, we knew there was a person there to speak to – or it just stopped ringing after sixty seconds. Large commercial firms had their own switchboards to answer the myriad of calls they received, which were then transferred to appropriate in-house people who were trained to assist. There was no message bank, no canned music, no numerical options, no recorded advertorials – there was no frustration.

My first job on leaving school was in the mail room of a large multinational petroleum company in Sydney. Every lunch-time many of the staff vacated the building, and I (as the most junior person) was given the task of roaming the halls in order to answer any telephone that happened to ring. I jotted down the message on a piece of paper and left it on the desk so that the recipient could return the call when their lunch was finished. Telephone calls were important, and we dealt with them accordingly.

Since those days telecommunications technology has improved dramatically with a view to making our lives easier and our workplaces more efficient – or so we like to think!

In the 1980s telexes and telegrams gave way to faxes; in the 1990s the world-wide-web furnished us with the ubiquitous “email”; and in the 2000s Facebook and Twitter facilitated an abundance of social interactions with friends and acquaintances. More significantly, in the last two decades smart-phones have shrunk from suitcase-size to book-size to wallet-size whilst providing an ever-growing range of portable services from photography to banking to GPS navigation. The fantasy world of Dick Tracy has now become a part of our everyday reality – and Siri is a friend to all.

But (in truth) has it all been worthwhile?

Younger generations now tend to regard telephone calls as relics of the past – curious old-fashioned practices favoured by older people. If their smart phone rings, they let it ring out before checking to see who it was and then they rely on texting or Snapchat to return any necessary messages.

If one is trying to ring a government department, an insurance company or a financial institution, it is common now to be put on hold for twenty or thirty minutes (which time is filled with unproductive and frustrating advertorials and muzak) before being connected to an actual human being of the “call centre” type. This human being inevitably has a limited capacity to assist, and must consequently transfer you to another human being – but only after waiting a further twenty or thirty minutes (filled with more advertorials or muzak). Telephone waiting has become endemic and exasperating. This is often attributed by the organisations concerned to staff shortages resulting from the current COVID pandemic, although the high turnover of such workers (many of whom work remotely) far pre-dates the pandemic.

The introduction of “call centres” in the business world has proliferated in recent years. If you are lucky you get to deal with a human being who speaks comprehensible English and has some knowledge of his/her task. Frequently, however, call centres are operated by staff based in India, Bangladesh or the Philippines. Many of these workers are marginally helpful – but (it must be said) some are trained solely in marketing, and lack any real knowledge of customer relations. Indeed, some are just blatant scammers.

Many new types of social media have now augmented the unfashionable telephone, and even on-line dating has become popular for those for whom face-to-face intimacy (or voice-to-voice familiarity) is perceived as being too slow and cumbersome. Indeed, the technology involved in human communication has changed so dramatically that it is sometimes difficult to differentiate between real human interaction and artificial intelligence. There are now people who relish virtual relationships knowing full well that the avatars they dote on are merely figments of their own imagination. It is a new and unnatural world in which we live.

It is also a world in which dangers abound – and the existence of “catfishing” is a growing phenomenon. This involves the process of luring someone into a relationship by use of a fictional online persona. Children and teenagers are particularly susceptible, and there are many predators in the “cyberspace” and the “metaverse” seeking to lure innocent participants into on-line sexual relationships.

Then there are the multifarious scam telephone calls that target the elderly and the unsuspecting in our community with seeming impunity. Every week, for example, I receive three or four unsolicited telephone calls (usually – but not always – recorded messages) advising that I owe a large sum of money to some unknown creditor, and if I wish to query the debt to “press ONE to speak to an operator”. The duplicity of their operation is pretty transparent – but there are clearly many innocent people out there who do succumb to such chicanery.

The recent scandals involving Optus and the Woolworths subsidiary Mydeal, in which large quantities of sensitive client information was hacked from their databases, are also salutary lessons in the dangers of merely participating in the world-wide-web. There are inevitably costs and benefits associated with the introduction of new technology, but it is always wise to apply some caution before putting one’s trust in the adequacy of the security safeguards of such corporations.

In the mid-1990s I was sent by Australian Volunteers Abroad to spend two years in a little town called Gizo in the Western Province of the Solomon Islands. It was a simpler lifestyle, cut off from many of the luxuries of modern-day life, and I lived in a little house on the hillside overlooking a lagoon. The town’s electricity was supplied by a diesel generator located in the bush nearby; but diesel fuel was always in short supply, so there were often outages – both day and night. The telephone system was operated by SI Telekom, but the province was dependant for funding on the national government in Honiara, and these payments were frequently overdue; as a consequence, the provincial government was habitually broke and had difficulty paying its monthly power bill – so the town was often without power or telephone.

Gizo operated on “Solomons taim”, which meant that if a meeting was called for 2.00 pm it actually started at 3.00. If you had an appointment to meet someone, it was necessary to adjust your expectations to allow for an hour or so of waiting. The lifestyle just didn’t permit rushing or clock-watching. Few Solomon Islanders had watches, and even fewer had more than a passing interest in the subject of time. The existence of minutes (or even more hilariously, seconds) barely impinged on people’s consciousness – it was morning, midday, afternoon or night, and that was good enough. Of course the Provincial public service workers (of whom I was one) were expected to start work at 8.30 and finish at 4.30, but even that was totally flexible. If you were sick or even tired you just stayed at home. There was, however, a token effort to make people aware of certain key times, so an old World War II air raid siren was cranked up and wailed all over town four times a day. Without fail, every time I heard it I surreptitiously looked up in the sky to see if the Japanese Zeroes were coming back after a fifty year respite.

For me, life in Gizo became merely the first step in a quest for simplicity – as my needs diminished my life simplified. My salary as a volunteer was that of a local Solomon Islander; I owned very little, but it was enough, and life was good. It became, in effect, a variation of Parkinson’s Law: “one’s needs diminish as one’s income diminishes and one’s access to consumer goods diminishes”. That, if nothing else, was a lesson worth learning – the true value of money, and the difference between “needs” and “wants”. This was a period of educating the “mature” Adrian – of expanding the horizons of a man who had become too entrenched in a middle-class lifestyle in an affluent industrialised country. And thereby it became a crucially important time of my life.

But that was long ago

Since my return from Gizo twenty-five years ago, many aspects of social media and the world-wide-web have developed and permeated throughout the world. I have, at times, been a keen consumer of this technology – in the process acquiring a reasonable knowledge of its benefits and functions. It has been fun. But I am also aware that most of it falls into the “wants” rather than the “needs” category.

Nevertheless, I must admit that the potential of this range of new technologies is indeed amazing. Email, for example, is a powerful communication asset, and I use it frequently on my home computer; I am also (I hesitate to admit) a frequent user of Facebook, despite an awareness of some of the more controversial and anti-social activities of its founding company. But that is the extent of my involvement in the cyber-world, and I baulk at most of the other on-line services which I truly do not need. I have lived without them for most of my life – and I am content to continue doing so. I now carry a simple “flip-phone” for my day-to-day activities, and eschew anything that smacks of “multiplexity” (such as a smart phone or a laptop).

Social awareness in an age of massive technological change inevitably brings with it a distaste for the manner in which technology can be being used for anti-social purposes – Amazon’s inhumane exploitation of warehouse workers reliant solely upon automation and machine vision, Uber’s gig-economy lobbying and disregard for labour law, (and yes even) Facebook’s use and release of unprecedented amounts of client data.

Perhaps I am old-fashioned and out-of-touch. Perhaps I am just a Luddite at heart. But I have long subscribed to H.D. Thoreau’s dictum to “simplify, simplify!” – and I think I am happier for doing so.

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