For the most part, life is a lot better than it was when I was a kid. We have cheap and instant global communications, more of us are able to travel, crime is down in most cities and, at least in some areas, the skies and waterways are cleaner than they were a few decades ago. It's great that we can download or stream almost any music we want to hear, and there's a lot to be said for being able to watch TV shows and movies any time and any where we want.
But modern life has its challenges, too. For one thing, consumers are often expected to be part of the assembly process for products we buy. I remember when you'd could go to a store, pick something up and just take it home and use it. That's still true for some products, but increasingly there is "some assembly required."
I thought about that recently when I bought a fan to cool off during the heat wave. I brought it home, opened the box and was presented with assembly instructions that were incomplete. There was nothing about how to attach the fan to its base or how to install the front cap, an essential safety component that keeps people from being able to stick their fingers between the fan's blade. The two pages of instructions came with an illustrated parts list, but several parts were missing and others were ambiguously drawn. My wife, who is a lot more patient than I am, and I spent nearly an hour trying to assemble it until we finally gave up and took it back to the store.
I had an equally frustrating experience when I bought a pingpong table a few years ago. The assembly instructions were accurate but far too complicated. Even bookcases, tables, chairs and other furniture often require some assembly. Consumers who work hard to earn the money to buy these products have to also work hard to make them usable once they bring them home.
I have other gripes about modern life. It used to be that you could pretty much count on being able to hear and understand people on the phone. But these days the person calling is likely to be on a cellphone, and there's a pretty good chance that the call quality will be awful or the call will go dead before you're ready to hang up. I got a recent series of email messages from George Gleason, an East Bay PBX engineer, who sent me samples of phone calls made from a variety of old AT&T phones from the '40s, '50s and '60s, which all sounded better than most of today's cellphone calls. And, back then, it was extremely rare for a call not to go through or be disrupted unless one of the callers hung up.
We're also making compromises when it comes to audio quality. I'm a big fan of digital audio players and listen to a lot of music on my smartphone. But when I was in my 20s, my goal was to get the best audio equipment I could afford, including a great good turntable, a powerful amplifier and great speakers. I miss the ritual of browsing through my album collection, carefully placing the record on the turntable and gingerly placing the needle in front of the first groove. Admittedly, I love that today's technology makes it possible to have endless playlists or stream just about any music one can imagine. But the sound quality, for the most part, isn't quite what is was back then.
I don't know if it's a compromise, but I find it ironic that many of us now watch video on very small screens. Just when it's possible and affordable to install a big high-resolution TV in our living rooms, we're watching an increasing amount of video on tablets, laptops and even smartphones. I do it all the time. I have a 55-inch living room TV, but I often watch movies and TV shows on my iPad mini or my MacBook because, for my lifestyle, convenience and mobility trump screen size and quality.
Of course, most of these compromises are based on choices. No one is forcing us to use portable equipment. We can still watch TV in the living room, and yes, they still make turntables, powerful amps and big speakers, and there is even resurgence in vinyl records. Landlines are still with us, though we can't control what type of phone others will use to talk to us.
So I'll stop complaining and remind myself that even in the 21st century, there are ways to recapture some of the qualities of life that many have left behind in the name of progress. We just have to work a little harder and be willing to give up some of the advantages of modernity, such as being able to talk, watch video and listen to music from anywhere or buy cheap imported consumer goods that require assembly.
But if I ever again find myself needing a fan on a hot summer day, I may drive a little farther and pay a little more to find one that's fully assembled.
Contact Larry Magid at email@example.com. Listen for his technology chats on KCBS-AM (740) weekdays at 3:50 p.m.