Phil Gulley: The Downside Of Technology

When my internet went down, I had time to think about all the things I could once—but no longer—live without.
One recent morning, I walked down the hallway to my office, sat at my computer, and tried to open my email, without success. A notice from AT&T popped up telling me our broadband service was not available and to try again in 15 minutes, which I did, but it still didn’t work. So I phoned AT&T and spoke to a pleasant man in India who promised to send someone to our house in three days to repair the cable leading to our home. I panicked, wondering how I would get by without the internet that long; then I remembered I could receive email, watch YouTube clips, irritate people on Facebook, and read about motorcycles on my smartphone. Nevertheless, I made it a point to tell everyone the internet service at our house was down and that we didn’t even miss it. No one sounds more virtuous than a man thumbing his nose at technology.

Three days later, a technician from AT&T arrived at our home at precisely the hour I had been told. I was, as you might imagine, so shocked I nearly fainted dead away, and even more astonished when he quickly diagnosed the problem, had the parts to fix it, and restored our service within the hour. This is the first time in my long association with corporations that they’ve done what they promised, and I’m worried what it might portend. Until recently, they have been so incompetent, the prospect of big business taking over the world seemed far-fetched. Now that they have their act together, it can’t be good. I might come to prefer the old days of ineptitude.

With my internet down, I had some time to think about all the things I didn’t have growing up that seem essential now, like dress pants with expanding waistbands. When I was a kid, waistbands were non-adjustable, and therefore always too tight or too loose. Now I can buy dress pants with a 34-inch waist that expand just the right amount. We began using elastic in clothing around the 1850s, so I’m not sure why it took so long to include it in dress pants. Before elastic was used, men sucked in their guts, then pulled their belts low and tight while holding their breath, like cinching a saddle on a horse. Leftover fat surged from underneath their T-shirts, draping over their belts, sometimes to their knees. Elastic waistbands changed all that. Now we can wear our pants around our armpits if we have a mind to, like the AT&T man who fixed our internet. Before long, kids won’t even know what a butt crack is.

We did without other products that now seem crucial, too. When I was young, my family didn’t have Post-it Notes. No one did, since they didn’t hit the market until 1979. We wrote everything on memo pads we got from people running for political office. Years after Richard Nixon’s 1972 presidential victory, every grocery list and note to our teachers read “They Can’t Lick Our Dick” across the top.

I’m not sure when bungee cords were invented, but they weren’t around when I was a kid, and I think my life would be pretty meaningless without them. In the last week alone, I’ve used bungee cords to keep a barn door closed, strap a duffel bag to my motorcycle, secure a tarp on a hay wagon, and hold the grass chute up on our mower. I don’t know how we lived without bungee cords. Of course, there’s a downside to them. Sometimes the metal hook on the end snaps back and hits me in the eye, blinding me for a week or two. But the way I look at it, I still have one good eye, so it’s worth it. If I had to choose between losing an eye and losing a bungee cord, I’d be hard-pressed to decide.

When I was a kid, people only had one doctor, but now they can’t seem to live without a swarm of physicians tending their ills. For the first 18 years of my life, until I moved from home, Dr. Robert Kirtley oversaw my medical care. When he delivered me in 1961, he charged my parents $40. The bill from Methodist Hospital was about the same. My feet were pigeon-toed and my eyes were crossed, so Dr. Kirtley strapped my legs to boards, then covered my eyes with patches, one at a time, until they were uncrossed. He didn’t charge extra for that. A few years later, I wrecked my bike and he stitched up my chin. My brother David had a hernia, and Dr. Kirtley fixed that, too. When my mother died last year, she was seeing six different doctors. I can’t help but think she would still be with us if Dr. Kirtley hadn’t retired.

People my age talk a lot about things they didn’t have growing up that seem necessary now, and they’re always quick to mention cell phones. But if all of our cell phones were suddenly rendered useless, I think I’d fare just fine after the initial shock. I would happily go back to using the phone on our kitchen wall and writing letters, both of which served me well for 45 years. Not once during that time did I wish for a phone I could carry in my pocket so anyone could call me whenever they wished. When I needed to speak with someone, I phoned them from my kitchen. If I was traveling, I called people from a pay phone, which was usually found in a gas station. While I was there, I often had a Coke and peanuts, and chatted with the owner about cars. If I couldn’t get in touch with someone, I took it as a sign from God that we weren’t supposed to talk that day.

Something I didn’t have as a kid but am glad I have now is Type II diabetes. I didn’t get it until I turned 50, and I’d be pretty much lost without it. It gets me out of boring meetings and unpleasant jobs. I fake a seizure and say in a slurred, shaky voice, “Excuse me, my blood sugar must be low. I have to eat something now.” Before I had diabetes, I was in perfect health, and when people talked about their diseases, I sat there like a dummy with nothing to say. Now I can entertain people for hours with my diabetes stories. Occasionally, I read an alarming article in a magazine about scientists discovering a cure, which would pretty much ruin my social life, something I’m sure those self-absorbed scientists haven’t considered in their quest for fame and fortune.

This is all to say that if I were in charge of the world, I would make sure that everyone had pants with elastic waistbands, Post-it Notes, bungee cords, one good doctor, a kitchen phone, and an interesting disease or two to give them something to talk about when their internet goes down.