I’ve often written about a concept from the world of physics that fascinates me, entropy. One simple definition is that “things left to themselves tend to disorder (or ‘chaos’ if you prefer).”
It requires outside infusions of energy to restore order. The concept seems to apply to almost everything from an expanding universe to the appearance of your front yard.
But what happens is the energy that is added contributes to further chaos as it seems to, if one extends the concept to political systems or, in the case of this article, to the wonderful world of electronics. I am convinced that young people must now carry a new gene that not only makes them comfortable with chaos, but gives them inspiration to create it.
Those of you who are old enough, think back to the time when a power failure in your home had a simple consequence. Everything that was electrically powered stopped, and when power was restored, pretty much everything came back on. The clocks — which were there to tell time — had to be reset, a relatively simple chore.
In today’s electronic world, when the power goes out my house becomes a minor disaster area. The default position of some electronic devices is “on,” so the voice mail system that is built into my telephones (that I keep off) comes on and directly conflicts with the service I buy from the telephone company.
Most of our television sets remain off, like I believe they should, but the manufacturer of one decided the default should be “on.” A fan that cools an important space stays “off.”
And then there is the task of resetting everything that is on timers, from the driveway lights to thermostats, to drip systems, to the oven and microwave, and on an on. And yes, invariably I miss one — not a big problem if the outage was a few minutes long, but if the timer on the water heater has been off for hours, that blast of icy water when you get into the shower serves as a dramatic reminder.
Yes, all of these issues arise from “progress” in providing “more and better” service, but life seemed so much simpler when there were two modes — on and off.
Our television provider just switched to an all-digital system. Every old set in the house now requires a digital box. Fair enough. A simple hook-up and you’re ready to go. But what about the DVR … in our case, linked by telephone to TIVO?
You can no longer take the signal off of the cable. No, you need IR cables so that the TIVO can communicate with the cable box (the cable company takes no responsibility either to inform you of the problem or to help you resolve it, but I must say that TIVO is extremely helpful). After two hours effort, it is up and working, but alas, I now need a manual relating to the proper care and use of remote devices.
The new remote that came with the digital box will turn the TV on and off and change stations. But it will not change from one input channel to another (the various gadgets attached to the set use different input jacks and technologies).
So I still need the old TV remote to do that. But then if I am using TIVO, only the TIVO-supplied remote will work. But if I accidentally use the cable remote while the TIVO is recording, it will change the station being recorded.
And then there is the ROKU box for online streaming of movies. You probably guessed it, I have to change the input channel (using the TV remote) and then operate the set with yet another ROKU remote. And the VCR player has still another (although I have been clever enough to figure out how to make the TV remote operate the VCR).
I’m sure, if they were near, I could get one of my grandchildren to replace all of this with a universal remote but, alas, they are not and for the time being, I’ve just got to struggle on. Of course, every remote is quite different — each with many many more buttons and functions than it’s humanly possible to remember.
Now, when watching TV I feel like I am in the dentist’s office, with that huge array of tools laid out in front of me. Normally, by the time I’ve figured out which one to use and the sequence in which to use them, the show is over. The good news is we miss a lot of commercials too.
Even when I am successful in following the proper sequence of button pushing, finding the right channel among the hundreds that are offered is a daunting task, particularly for one who likes to channel surf. I remember the days when all it took was one knob to turn the set on and control the volume and another to select one of a dozen or so channels. And the exercise, walking back and forth, was an added benefit.
I’m not going to even begin to talk about cell phones. Once upon a time you said “hello,” had a conversation, and then said “goodbye.” That was it. Today smartphones have thousands and thousands of apps. Every one requires a new learning experience — in many cases in an intuitive mode, since instructions and manuals are either non-existent or written for those who have already been initiated into the inner circle. And every day the old technology, which only works some of the time, is being replace by new, which only works some of the time. It’s not worth getting the bugs out because the life of a particular cell phone and cell phone technology seems to be measured in terms of nano-seconds.
Then there are cars. I can still remember the days when all you needed to fix things was a screw driver, a wrench and a few other assorted mechanical tools. It was actually fun.
Today, the car has turned into an electronic monster. If it won’t start, it might be the computer chip in the key. Enormously expensive computers are necessary to provide service.
And then there are all the bells and whistles. AARP’s Bulletin recently discussed all the wonderful new technologies being incorporated into vehicles: beep warnings when a pedestrian walks by, lights that illuminate if you are driving too close, automatic breaking systems that also kick in if you do, signals if there is another vehicle in your blind spot, chimes if you are getting drowsy and driving erratically, cameras for backing up, assist devices for parallel parking, etc.
The point: all the signals and noises, designed to enhance safety, may possibly be so distracting, that anyone not prone to multitasking has a problem. Consider the beep or signal that takes one’s eyes from the roadway and focuses them on the dashboard while one is trying to identify the fact that the signal means you are too close to the car in front. Bang!
How much is enough and how much is too much? I don’t know the answer, but it is clear that with all the fantastic capabilities the electronic world has brought us, there are certain human factors, particularly with my generation, that create problems.
It may be physiological in that brains and the muscles they control don’t react as quickly, learning comes a bit more slowly, or the right instincts have not been developed.
But it also may be the remembrance of simpler times, when, without all the bells and whistles, life was still pretty good.
Dr. Melvyn Copen lives in both Arizona and Georgia. He is an educator and businessman who has worked and lived in many foreign countries and provides consulting services throughout the world. His column appears every other week, more or less. Please share your comments with him via e-mail at email@example.com. For more information, you can go to www.copencom.com.