I have a new cell phone. I bought it to replace my PDA, which I apparently stepped on and which now serves no discernible purpose. My new cell phone is fun; it has games that cost nothing and a Sufjan Stevens ring tone that I paid good money for. But I can't seem to figure out how to access my voice mail, which means that at least in one of its core functions, my new phone serves no discernible purpose.
Sure, I'll blame the phone. But deep down I know it's me. There's something patently obvious that I am patently oblivious to. In my most self-aware moments, I'll even admit it.
I've heard the stories over the years of how people struggle with new technologies, how they show their age by their lack of understanding. A comedian on Last Comic Standing told her audience that her mother still unplugs the microwave every night; "She's afraid that one of her cats will punch in a time sequence, climb into the microwave and pull the door closed behind her, and then another cat in some bizarre feline suicide pact will press the start key." That's the cultural clash of new technologies: for every one person who sees the new tech as a great leap forward, there's another person who sees a potential apocalypse.
I'm inclined to find a middle ground; new technologies are cultural artifacts in the sense that they follow as much as they lead. They don't descend from on high; they're created in a process that involves time, attention and trial and error. A sense of lack is the call; new tech is the response.
At the same time, new tech reflects a cultural reality: the myth of perpetual progress. Not that history doesn't progress, but at least part of the sense of lack is driven by the idea that things must change, that if we're not changing we're atrophying and might as well be dying. I chose my current cell phone from a pool of competing cell-novelties, and my purchase was made in the shadow cast by the imminent release of the iPhone, which will make my PDA phone look decidedly quaint.
But whether new tech is driven by our psychological fear of death or our pragmatic sense that something could be made easier, the net result is that new tech is a new reality, and new realities demand new ways of adapting. Some people can swing it, others can't. So what happens when these folks meet?
Depends on who's meeting, I suppose, and what they're meeting for. When the Minutemen met the Redcoats during the American Revolution, the Redcoats were marching in a straight line while the Minutemen snuck around free form. And now Americans drive on the right side of the road and spell neighbor without a u. U do the math.
But there's a better way, I think, and it's reflected in the nature of Christian community. The apostle Paul tells those who are strong to support those who are weak. Peter tells those who are powerful not to lord it over those who are not but to serve them by example. John commends the young for their strength and the old for their wisdom. And the lot of them suggest that whatever our individual assets or liabilities, we're meant to be there for one another.
I had that experience this morning. I and a coworker were fretting over how to get a task done. The work--reproducing a document in digital form--seemed daunting and distasteful, and we were about to (apologetically but mercilessly) dump it on our intern. She was surprisingly willing, and off-handedly remarked that she didn't have to retype it; she could simply scan it. My coworker and I--I in my thirties, she in her twenties--were dumbstruck; the only word we could come up with was "Brilliant!"
And now, the only word I can come up with is "Duh!"