KNAPP: "I Need To Be A Luddite"

I long to be a Luddite. Here's why. It started with the TV. Bought a brand new TV -- big thing, 27-inch screen, built-in VCR. "Super easy," said the sales professional at Lechmere, as sales professionals are won't to do. "Programs automatically. Just push a button and it'll do anything you want it to do." Got the TV home. Set it up, read the manual. Twenty minutes later, I'm sitting on the living-room floor, a remote in each hand, pieces of manual scattered about the floor, screaming at the TV. What the fuck? Insane directions. A built-in menu that requires pushing about seven different buttons each time you want the TV to perform a different function. Press prog for programming and adv to advance this or that; press channel buttons up or down for X, Y, and Z; press button A on the cable box, button B on the TV, button C someplace else. Needless to say, three months have elapsed and I still haven't the vaguest idea how to tape a show unless the show is already on and I'm sitting right there in front of the TV, which kind of defeats the purpose. I follow all the right steps, push all the right buttons -- tape Melrose Place, Channel 25, Monday, 8 to 9 p.m. -- and even though the little button indicating that the machine is recording lights up, I have not once successfully taped a single show. Once, I tried to fake the TV out and tape Melrose in the aforementioned manner -- while it was on and I was home. I figured that way I could at least watch it later and get some work done from 8 to 9, but I hit the mute button by mistake and the show came out with no sound. It's driving me nuts. But not quite as nuts as my computer. America OnLine is the bane of my existence. Last fall, I received a disk from AOL promising fabulous access to the fabulous Internet. A simple matter of an upgrade. Just download the disk and -- voila! -- cruise right onto the Info Superhighway. Tried to download the disk. Got a message saying the process would take something like 26.9 hours to complete. Fussed and fretted. Ended up realizing I needed more memory and a higher-speed modem. Took the computer to the computer store. Spent something in the order of $79,264 getting more memory and a higher-speed modem. Brought the computer home, tried to download the disk again. Got a message saying the process would take something like 24.9 hours to complete. Argh! Sometime later, I managed to complete the AOL upgrade in a (comparatively) reasonable time frame -- something like seven hours -- and actually ended up with access to the Web for about two days. But then, in one of those inexplicable twists that makes you feel as though your electronics equipment is conspiring against you, something shifted, and every time I try to get access to the Web, a little message flashes telling me I can't have access unless I .Ê.Ê. download the upgrade software. "Hit keyword 'Upgrade,'Ê" it says. "Hit keyword 'Upyours,'Ê" I say. Needless to say, the folks at AOL, who seem willing to communicate only via computer, are no help at all. I e-mail them requests for help; the e-mail me gibberish. "Go to your system folder and disable any RAM doubling, while re-setting the 'cache switch' and setting 'memory' to 32 bit addressing ON. Then pirouette three times and croon the last verse of 'You Were Never Lovelier'Êdirectly into your computer." Still, no Web access. Today, I called a local Internet service and asked about subscribing. I ended up having an extremely frustrating 15-minute phone call with a guy named Ramon who may well have been fluent in computerese but had a tough time with basic English. Allegedly, a disk containing some magic new software is on its way to my house in the mail, courtesy of Ramon. We'll see. Was equipment always this complicated? Once upon a time, it seems, we got stuff, we plugged it in, and then we got to take it for granted. This is never true anymore. I ordered a transcribing machine from Staples, so I can transcribe interviews easily. I pleaded with the sales professional. "I want the best one you have. The most low-maintenance. The most user-friendly."ÊHe assured me: this is the one you want. This is it. The machine arrived in the mail, required a PhD in electronics to set up, and turned out to have a broken foot pedal. Same story with a brand new, very expensive tape recorder (which, of course, turned out to be incompatible with the transcribing machine). I took it home, fell in love with it for about three days, and then the stop button ceased to work. Press stop and I get eject instead, which means that every time I am trying to transcribe a tape (not with the inoperable transcribing machine, upon which I have given up) and need to stop the tape, I hit the stop button and the tape comes flying out of the machine and hurls itself across the room. Sometimes you get the feeling that all this stuff is out to get you, that it's secretly programmed to drive you round the bend. My portable telephone is a gem, a model of technological ease -- except when I'm sitting in my very favorite chair in the living room, the place where I most like to sit back and have long chats on the phone. Then -- and only then, in that particular chair -- the phone develops a high, screeching whine that renders normal human contact impossible. What else? Car radio: up and died, no reason. Regular AM-FM radio in my house, strategically placed in the bathroom so I can listen to NPR while I get ready in the morning: suddenly decided it will not tune itself in unless I physically hold the tip of the antenna. Never happened before; just turned against me. Brand-new vacuum cleaner, many fabulous attachments: every single time I use it, one of the attachments will spontaneously dislodge itself from the main hose and fling itself across the room for no discernible reason. The other day, the little attachment called an "edger," which is supposed to pick up bits of dirt from difficult edges and corners, flung itself off the vacuum and wedged itself in an irretrievable spot behind the washer-dryer in my bathroom. This is the same washer-dryer that has a little light inside that spontaneously goes on and off at random points during the day and that only dries clothes about 40 percent of the time. (The other 60 percent it takes as much time as an AOL software upgrade.) Equipment is evil. I need a full-time equipment geek, someone I can station inside my house, keep on guard. Someone who will pounce on this stuff every time it acts of its own volition. I get the feeling my computer and my tape recorder and my TV know I'm intimidated by them, so they act like ill-trained dogs, beasts that understand they can get away with murder. I need electronics assertiveness training. I need whips and chains. I need .Ê.Ê. Sigh. I need to be a Luddite.

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