Cultural currency: Hangtown Fry, celebrity skanks and obsolete gadgets

I was talking to M over beer. (This ended up being the second night in a row where I had to leave a beer half-finished on a bar, which is really mortifying. What a waste.)

I mentioned that Joe had been in the habit of making Hangtown Fry quite often lately.
“Hangtown Fry? What’s that?”
I explained it was an oyster, bacon and egg scramble, dating back from the Gold Rush days, when some miner who had struck it rich showed up in some restaurant in SF and demanded that the cook make him the most extravagant dish possible, and those were the only ingredients available. (California at that point was not yet the agricultural powerhouse it is today.)

The conversation shifted and somehow we were talking about those notorious sisters; one of whom had managed to stay married to a professional ball player for all of 72 days. “Yeah, their reality show is great because it’s completely mindless, which is the perfect antidote to the long, hard hours of work after I get home,” she said.
“The Kadarskanks have a reality TV show?”
“Celia, what rock* have you been under?!” The only reason why M didn’t fall off her barstool out of shock was because she has way too much dignity and poise.
“Hey, you didn’t know what Hangtown Fry was!” I retorted feebly. But it was no use. If you surveyed 50 people in line at Disneyland, probably all of them would know about the Kadarskanks’ TV show, and all of them would know the 49ers only as a football team.

(*I’m actually going to blame this one on Linda. Because once a upon a time, I distinctly remember standing in line at the supermarket with her, seeing one of those Kadarskanks on the cover of People magazine, and wondering out loud why people paid so much attention them? What had they done to earn their fame? Linda gave me a full low-down, but I don’t remember her mentioning that they had a reality TV-show. In reality, she probably did, but I just plumb forgot.)

The discovery of such lapses in cultural currency are constantly punctuating my life. Everything I learn about current culture and events, I find out from reading the newspaper. In my salad days I would actively see movies; now I just read about them. I’ve gone from being a direct to a second-hand consumer. I don’t need to watch the Super Bowl commercials; I just read about them in the business section and then look them up on youTube. Apparently there’s some book called The Hunger Games; Truc asked me if I had read it (no, I hadn’t even heard of it), but my awareness was reinforced by mention in the Food section of the Mercury News, where they announced a contest for recipes based on the book.

It’s funny though. Somehow I manage to get enough out of reading the newspaper or by serendipitous stumbles to maintain minimal technological currency. I know how LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and even Foursquare work, even if I don’t actually use them myself. (And once in a blue moon, I get a kick out being able to tell others about apps they don’t know about, even if I don’t have a smartphone on which to able to use them myself.)

Last week, the NYT ran an article on gadgets that at one time were the ne ultra plus, but are now obsolete. I sent the link to my childhood band of cousins, who were and still are mostly technogeeks**. As part of my message, I mentioned that I had come across the article in the newspaper I picked up off my porch, and that the article’s layout in there had great visual impact. (I had peeked at the article online, where the same content had been rearranged to fit a more compact digital format, but had less ‘wow’ on the eyeballs.)

(**How much so? I once sent them all an email, asking what the flashlight sword in Star Wars was called, because I was irked by the fact that I couldn’t remember its proper name. I got 3 responses back within 30 minutes. Why didn’t I look it up online? Because this was 1997. Dinosaurs were still roaming the earth and Google didn’t exist.)

Biker mentioned that he’d owned all those gadgets before save one: the pager. (Really, he had a Polaroid camera as well? How come I don’t remember that?) Another mentioned it was nice to sit in a café and read the hard paper once in while, with the air of someone who might also enjoy an occasional shoe-shine in the airport. I ranted about my preferences for reading hard copy vs. online versions (harder to skim, too many clicks, annoyance with teasers in the hard copy directing you to go online for supplemental content. I have the same complaints about looking up maps online vs. on paper.)

T summed it best: “You’re a bit of technophobe.”
It’s slam-dunk truth, although I don’t think I’ve ever wanted to explicitly admit it. Why?

My excuses:

I overly resist them, just to be contrary in a I-don’t-jump-on-the-(Apple) band-wagon way.
I broke down and got my first cell-phone because I took my dad on a road-trip to Crater Lake a week after his eye-surgery, 24 hours after he disembarked from a 14-hour plane ride . . . and my bleeping car broke down. Lovely, lovely man that my dad is, he cheerfully walked along the weed-infested shoulder towards the freeway exit with me as we sought help. I’ve still not completely forgiven myself.
I’m also a slight hypocrite. I did buy Joe an ipod for his birthday once, but it was because I couldn’t think of anything else to get for him.

Several hundred dollars for a gadget, is it really worth it? For the same amount of money it costs to have dinner at Evvia and Kaygetsu (Steve Jobs ate there), I could buy an iPhone and a one-year data contract. I’d rather have the eats, even if they last no more than several hours. I could afford both financially. But it goes against my fiscal-philosophy to spend so much money on gadgets.

Planned obsolescence
Consumers are willing to be suckered into wanting the latest and greatest thing, and buy upgrades even though their existing devices are still functional. (I have to admit, I am the beneficiary of many such hand-me-downs.) This causes an excessive demand for goods, which is good for corporate profits, but at social expense. These devices are not entirely environmentally benign, even if they do save trees from being felled into paper, or fuel consumption of not having to ship materials, or the carbon emissions of flying people through the skies simply because communication has gone digital. On the production end, there are well-reported health issues involved for those who make these gadgets. There’s also the problem of disposal: these gadgets all have components which are difficult to recycle or toxic to the environment when they end up in landfills, etc.

Fear of dependency/addiction
One of my colleagues left his ipad on BART. It reduced him to a blubbering mess. “My whole life is on that ipad. My notes, my movies, my music, everything,” he moaned.
“Look, would you rather lose your ipad or get hit by a bus?”
He thought for a moment. “Nudged by a bus?”

I need the reassurance and convenience of redundancy. It takes pro-active effort to back-up and protect everything to begin with. And even if everything ends up being on the cloud, and can be easily recreated/retrieved, it’s still a pain the ass to have to repopulate and reorganize everything. My ultimate fear is that if there was no electricity, none of the fricking gadgets would work, and none of the data would be accessible. I don’t want to be such a vulnerable hostage.

Black is boring:
Gadgets are usually small and usually black, and thus all too easy to lose, although not small enough to really fit in jeans’ pockets. Why, why why? One of the cousins is notorious for leaving behind wallets and gadgets on restaurant tables, planes and hotels. Easy come, easy go. I’m very good about beating myself up for losing stuff like that. OK, it’s easy enough to buy a skin that’s a screaming shade of hard-to-miss fuschia . . . but still, I think most technogeeks have too many inadequacy hangups to go for anything other than a basic black Otter cover.

The good thing about being a late adopter is that the early adopters are the beta-testers (they get bragging rights for compensation) of the inaugural version, leading invariably to a sophomore model that has more of the kinks worked out. Even then, there’s a lot of deliberate consideration on my part as to whether to get a certain gadget:

Choices, choices, choices:
Which one should I get? DVD or Blu-ray? iPhone or Android or Blackberry? Laptop vs. notebook vs. tablet?

Will this gadget be more of a help or a distraction?
Yes I have the discipline to use it under proper conditions. But look at all the morons out there who text while driving, talk on the phone at the movies, or disturb their fellow audience with the bright screen on while at a performance. And all those whose heads are bowed to the glass screens instead of lifted up in engaging with humans around them. Maybe it’s the ultimate solution for the age-old dilemma of guys who don’t want to have to ask someone for directions when they are lost; they can simply look it up on GoogleMaps. (And indeed, it could be more reliable)

Will I be able to learn how all the features work?
I can never remember how to set the auto-timer on my digital camera?

Will I end up under-using it?
My mom spends the majority of her time on the ipad playing Solitaire. My dad has an Airbook – primarily for reading email. People ask me dumb questions all the time which could easily be answered by googling their fricking smartphone. What’s the point of having a smartphone?

I thought about getting a blackberry for work, mainly because I get scheduled for so many meetings, it’s hard to keep track of where I’m supposed to be and where I’m supposed to go next. But that’s all I want it for, because it sucks for surfing the internet, and I actually do want to keep my own phone. So it’s not worth it. I don’t need two phones. Besides, not having a smartphone means I don’t have to be tethered to work communication all the time, which is a good thing. I am neither so vital nor so critical to the work, and I intend to stay that way.

Is it suited for what I want it to do?
I’ve had to type on iphones and ipads, and I hate it. Apple is notorious for forcing you to use their products in a way that’s dictated by them. (Steve Jobs and his “the consumer doesn’t know what they want; I’m going to give them what I want” be damned.) The ipad has no USB port? You have to create playlists on the computer and then upload them to the ipod? That’s so f—king inconvenient. I wanted to buy someone a specific title for their Nook? No can do (but I would have been able to on the Kindle.) I got them a hard copy book instead – I guess I could have gotten it autographed as well. Can’t do that on an e-reader.

Does it have extra features that I don’t want but are stuck getting?
My first car had wind-up windows, which made me happy, because I’d once been stuck in a car with power windows which malfunctioned. This meant I sat freezing and wet in the back seat, because we couldn’t get the windows to roll up during a typically rainy California winter. When I was forced to get a new car, I was disappointed that they all came with power windows.
Likewise I don’t really want a new laptop that has a built-in camera. Because I’d like to be able to pick my nose while I’m skyping.

For all this ranting, I think that the proliferation of gadgets has been more of a plus than a minus. It’s not really the gadgets themselves, but the way people use them that really needs a lot more mindful and thoughtful application. While it’s enabled more people to do more and push boundaries intellectually and creatively, in some alarming way, it’s also enabled people to get away with doing less, being more complacent and being controlled by other without really realizing it.

It’s going organically in both directions. Where will we end up?


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