It’s not that I’m risk averse — I prefer predictability. I appreciate a pleasant sameness in my daily routine. Blissful in the calm, I can get things done. I can read, write, cook, shop, walk, chat, think. What I don’t like is having to start each day with a new instruction manual. Something new comes down the pike, something old becomes roadkill. Disruptive innovation, as the economists call it, gives me the shivers. To me, it’s about obstruction and destruction and not necessarily about efficiency and welfare. Some call it progress. I moved to the Island in part to get away from the Boston winters, the traffic, the super highways, the noise, the pollution and the rat race. But I was also lured by the thought that the Vineyard was a progress-free zone. I was misinformed. Progress is a crabgrass indigenous to just about everywhere except maybe the Pitcairn Islands and the U.S. Congress.
What brings this on? Excuse me while I put on my Andy Rooney grimace and wince. Okay, for starters, where are you going with my light bulbs?
A nationwide phase-out of 40 and 60-watt bulbs has begun. In 2012 the 100-watt bulb became extinct. Hardware stores will continue to sell these incandescent relics until they run out. The reason for this phase-out is to sell us newfangled bulbs that will make our houses green. It will make mine green with envy over any other house that’s fully equipped with incandescent bulbs. Don’t think, however, you can find any left on this Island. My wife raided every store over the weekend.
In 2007, President Bush signed the Energy Independence and Security Act, mandating that low-efficiency bulbs be gradually removed from production, because they allegedly throw more heat than light. Then they gave us that compact fluorescent bulb resembling squashed pasta. It’s like staring up at a party streamer trapped in a light fixture. It saved energy by not really responding to the light switch. You’d flip it, go out and make a sandwich and by the time you returned, the lights were on. What’s next?
Here’s what they’re telling us: More energy-efficient bulbs, like LED and halogen lights, will cost customers more, but they will last longer. And over time, customers will see a dramatic drop in energy bills. Over the same period of time, the meek shall inherit the earth. Somewhere in a dimly lit cemetery, Thomas Edison is rolling over in his grave.
Aren’t they always trying to sell us new things? New designs for the new lifestyle? Things that will cost more? Things that will allegedly last longer? Is this progress or marketing? Is this what Alfred P. Sloan Jr. in the 1920s called “dynamic obsolescence” as he had General Motors come up with a new model every year? Isn’t this what his critics called “planned obsolescence,” what in 1954, industrial designer Brooks Stevens defined as “instilling in the buyer the desire to own something a little newer, a little better, a little sooner than is necessary”?
Okay, who asked for high-definition television? There we were, minding our own business, watching TV for half a century, and along comes someone with the bright idea that a screen image should be as crystal clear as if it were viewed through a well-washed window. Why? Would you allow an art dealer to snub your desire for impressionism and sell you stark raving realism instead?
In the early days of high definition, before they rammed it down our throats, I saw a product demonstration featuring Aerosmith. When they zoomed in for a close-up of Steven Tyler, it reminded me of the Apollo landing on the surface of the moon. Hi-def would soon give birth to a whole new line of cosmetics, something akin to spackle.
While I sit here fumbling through our basket of remotes and staring at the DVD player that has replaced our VCR and the long page of instructions for how to make the TV mate with the DVD player, I’m bombarded by ads trying to upgrade me to a wall-size screen as more and more people adjust their eyesight to watching full-length films on their phones.
Speaking of phones, remember when you could communicate by voice with another human? Actual interaction has been reduced to virtual interaction. This is neither efficient nor compassionate, either by phone or by Internet. FAQs do not replace the ABCs of a real conversation, complete with nuances, tangents and qualifiers.
Once while trying to make an airline reservation, I sneezed, coughed and yelled at a turkey outside my window. I then spent an hour un-booking myself from an aisle seat on a next-day flight to Istanbul.
Thanks to computerized service, my frustration level is now at Orange. Too often I find myself gnashing loudly into the phone: “Assistance! Agent! Human!” Of course, while you wait for a person, you’re forced to listen to a medley of Patti Page and Metallica.
In the name of progress, they’ve also been playing with our food. But don’t get me started on that.
People vote for change, but do they really want it? We want a nice, warm status quo. Neighborliness. Basic values. Old time religion. Mom and Pop shops. Comfort food. Ever notice how even in the most gourmet of restaurants these days, plates of meat loaf and mashed potatoes are sneaking onto the menus? What does that tell you?
Arnie Reisman and his wife, Paula Lyons, regularly appear on the weekly NPR comedy quiz show, Says You! He also writes for the Huffington Post.