Taming the Monster

There was a time when we could dismiss stories of monsters as the myths of an unenlightened age. Even if true, monsters were usually somewhere else. The monsters in Beowulf had been ranging on the moors, far from human settlements, until Hrothgar got Grendel angry and he erupted into the mead hall.

But we, in our modern day, bring the monsters home and plug them in.

All of which is said because I got a new cell phone last week. I’ve had one for several years but it was so primitive a model that it could only be used for phone calls. It lived in the glove compartment of my car and was turned on only when I needed to report that a meeting was over and when I might be home.

The new cell phone comes with a 110 page instruction book and only on page 20 does it talk about making calls. The “Quick Start Guide” never does talk about phone calls. It’s all about taking pictures, sending and receiving text messages, downloading games, and accessing weather reports and sports results.

Something as complex and sensitive should not be thought of as a mere machine to be used. The first section of the instruction manual is “Understanding Your Phone.” If you want to know about the Address Book, much of what you need to know is under “Understanding Your Address Book.”

But the problem is that my phone doesn’t understand me. To work successfully with me, it needs to offer me simple choices in clear language. Soft keys, navigation keys, various menus with mysterious icons and further choices compress more information into a smaller space than human beings have ever confronted before. “Featured applications provide: alarms, calendar, calculator, record audio, converter, timer, stopwatch, and world time.” And that’s before you get to the camera or games or a million other things – to say nothing of “Section 10: WAP.” Surely you know about WAP!

I’m no Luddite; I was using a computer before most people and can’t imagine life without my desktop, laptop, scanner, and copier. My computer does sometimes crave understanding and get fractious but I can usually outwit it – or take it to a technician who knows how to remind it of its purpose in life. But this little monster has the capacity to devour more people than Grendel. Either you give your life to it or call for Beowulf to save you as Hrothgar did.

It’s early days in the struggle and I remain irrationally optimistic. Failing all else, we hope for a visit from our older son at Easter. Failing that, visits this summer from our grandsons, ages ten, five, and two, are even likelier to help bring the monster under control.

In olden times, we frightened little children with tales of monsters. In these modern times, we need the children to tame the monsters that frighten us.

1 Comment

LibbyMarch 19th, 2007 at 3:58 am

I spent the weekend text-messaging with Mariah, who was away at a Model U.N. conference. Every single time, I pressed a button at some point that told me I was about to erase my message, and did I really want to do that? I never did, and usually things eventually worked, but I did feel old and incompetent!

On the other hand, Mariah can probably figure out your phone, too!

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