Make Life Simple Again

My wife and I recently decided to resurrect the VCR so that we could enjoy the hundreds of videotapes we’d collected before DVDs came along.

Towards that end I ordered a seven-dollar set of cables on-line.  I received a confirmation via e-mail.  Then a notice that my order was being prepared for shipment, that it was shipped, that it was in my mailbox, then an e-mail thank you, finally an e-mail asking for feedback and suggesting I read their multi-paragraph arbitration policy in the event I had a dispute. 

That afternoon I bought a can of shaving cream at the local pharmacy grateful that the saleslady wasn’t going to follow me out to the parking lot to wave good-bye, call me at home to make sure I’d arrived safely with the product and then ring me up when I was shaving the next morning to make certain everything was going well.

Modern technology saves a lot of time. Especially when writing because it’s much easier to verify spellings and quotations.  But it wastes far more than it saves with its cost-less e-mailing programmed on computers by steel nerved customer service fanatics.  And opening every one of those robot e-mails and reading them, if I were ever so foolish as to do such a thing, would have me eating ten or fifteen or thirty minutes out of my nap time every day.

Computer robots talking to you on the phone are similar time predators.  I get a post card followed by an e-mail to call the V.A. for my semi-annual appointment and when I do, the phone message I have to listen to and select three or so options from is one minute and fifty-two seconds long!  Push the wrong button and it repeats.  Even when you get to the clinic, you are driven nuts by this nonsense.  It used to be that you went to the very helpful receptionist, identified yourself, she smiled and said, “take a seat Mr. Miniter and I’ll tell the nurse you’re here.” Now there is a touch screen computer kiosk barring your way.  You have to enter your Social Security number and verify your name, D.O.B., address, the fact that you don’t want to harm yourself, allergies and emergency phone numbers before you can advance and have the receptionist say “we’re having problem with data entry today sir so give me the last four (digits of your Social Security number and I’ll tell the nurse you’re here.”

The worst part is knowing that behind your back the petty humiliation is being savored by the Vets waiting who had their own earlier joust with the computer kiosk and now, get to laugh at you.

Even in retail chains who after a hundred years in business should have figured out how to service customers, you get hammered by computer generated interaction.  My wife and I go out to purchase a new refrigerator.  The very helpful salesman is very helpful up to the point we make a decision about which one to buy.  Then he swipes the iPad-like little computer he’s carrying and stares at it flummoxed.  “Oh I’m sorry ma’am” he finally says to my wife, “I don’t have that particular unit on my thing.  I’ll have to get someone else to service you” and he walks off.  Five minutes later he returns with someone who swipes their black box “thing,” finds the refrigerator we’re interested in, and smiles sunnily while he steps us through thirty minutes of input.

Then in the following week my wife was driven berserk because she foolishly provided them with her office phone and e-mail.  Indeed there had to have been a dozen communications prior to delivery up to and including a computer generated phone call that morning telling her that they would call before they got there.  In other words a call telling her they were calling her to tell her they were going to call.

And honestly I don’t know if any robot was paying any attention to the various phone or e-mail responses they asked for.  For example one e-mail my wife received asked her to provide the width in inches of every door the refrigerator had to pass through.  So that one she forwarded to me because I’m in charge of knowing where a tape measure is.  But in a fit of malicious glee I e-mailed back that there were four doors, one six inches wide, one five, one four and one three.  Thank you for your response came back the response followed by a page of blather about how the information I provided would make this purchase an even more wonderful shopping experience.

There’s no end to it.  I’ve even had to consider asking my daughter to send my fourteen-year-old very savvy granddaughter up Main Street and put me to bed every night because the CPAP machine that helps me sleep has no on and off switch!  Instead there’s a tiny computer screen you cycle through menu choices on and if you screw it up you’re lost somewhere in error-code land.  Meanwhile I need my glasses to read the screen, it’s dark, I’m exhausted and the longer my frustration simmers the more I’m inclined to revert to an older technology by reaching for the .357 revolver under my pillow (another sleep aid) and speeding six rounds of 130 grain lead through Mr. CPAP’s smug little window at 1400 feet per second.

No jury of peers would ever convict me.  Nor would they if I murdered the microwave with so many functions I can spend five minutes trying to warm up my coffee for twenty seconds, the dinging seat belt alarm in my wife’s Subaru, the choice of six different ways to buy a ticket from a robot on the D.C. Metro, the TV remote with more buttons than the control panel of a 747, the idiot on-line newspaper I never heard of which keeps sending text alerts to my texting-less senior citizen flip phone with the big buttons that light up at night, or for that matter the digital camera whose pictures I have to view on a computer screen instead of being able to pass around at dinner like the 3 x 5s that drugstore used to develop for me.

I know Donald Trump wants to make America great again and I’m not sure what Hillary wants other than the chance to steal more furniture from the White House, but I wish somebody would promise to make life simpler again.

Richard F. Miniter is the author of The Things I Want Most, Random House, BDD See it Here.  He lives and writes in the colonial era hamlet of Stone Ridge, New York, blogs here and can also be reached at