I noted in this space eleven years ago the death of Joseph J. Zimmermann Jr., the man who invented the answering machine. On that occasion I quoted something that H.L. Mencken told a reporter in 1946, two years before Zimmermann came up with his world-changing idea: “The only modern inventions that have been of any real use to me are the typewriter and the Pullman car.” Mencken was born in 1880, so that claim takes in a lot of turf, but I think he made it with a reasonably straight face. Since he didn’t much care for telephones, going so far as to claim that “nine-tenths of the people who call me by telephone I don’t want to talk to,” I also think it safe to suppose that he would have had something characteristically sulphurous to say about Mr. Zimmermann’s invention had he been aware of it.
Nowadays, of course, the old-fashioned answering machine is as quaint as the fax machine, but it was a very big deal when I first bought one back in the late Seventies. Not long ago I observed that it was in fact an invention of great cultural import:
The answering machine, by contrast, really did transform the way in which we used the telephone by making it possible to screen incoming calls. As soon as that possibility became a reality, the place of the telephone in daily life underwent a profound change, and never changed back.
Mrs. T and I were chatting about that post the other day, and we got to wondering what subsequent invention had had the biggest effect on our own everyday lives. She plumped for the GPS, and after a bit of thought I found myself agreeing with her. Yes, the iPod was a big deal, but I still have no trouble imagining life without a portable record library, which would be less convenient but by no means impossible. (Remember terrestrial radio?) By now, though, I really do find it hard to imagine how I ever got along without a GPS. Given the amount of traveling I do, it has long since become almost as essential to my present-day existence as word processing.
Like many other GPS owners we know, Mrs. T and I have anthropomorphized our machine, which we call “Miranda.” We used to amuse ourselves on occasion by imagining how she might respond to mistreatment by sending us hurtling off in the wrong direction, in the manner of “Talky Tina” from The Twilight Zone. After nine years of taking orders from Miranda and her successors, though, we now mostly take her for granted. I’m not so sure we should, for Miranda is more than a mere convenience. She’s actually changed the way in which I relate to the world—for better and worse.
On the one hand, using a GPS has made me more adventurous. Time was when driving in unfamiliar places left me feeling uncomfortable, but now, no matter where I am, I’m willing to jump in the car and start driving at random, knowing that I can go back where I came from with ease. But it’s also made me less aware of where I am at any given moment, at least when I’m using it to get from point A to point B. It seems that my travels, like my life, have become increasingly goal-directed, and Miranda has facilitated that transformation. More often than not I know where I am and where I’m going, and what happens in between is…well, less important than it used to be.
No doubt Thoreau had something relevant to say about all this, but I don’t know what it was. I do, however, know something relevant that Josef Pieper said on a not-unrelated subject:
Of course the world of work begins to become—threatens to become—our only world, to the exclusion of all else. The demands of the working world grow ever more total, grasping ever more completely the whole of human existence.
That’s not me, not quite, but there are times when it looks too much like me for comfort, and I wouldn’t dream of trying to blame it on Miranda, any more than I take it personally on the rare occasions when she steers me wrong. No, I’m the problem, with modernity my unindicted co-conspirator, though “labor-saving” gadgets like the GPS and—yes—my trusty laptop don’t help.
As for these fugitive reflections, I’m damned if I know whether they’re a good thing or a bad thing, either. Once you’ve spent four decades writing for a living, you’re all too prone to behave as if no thought is worth having until it’s been written down and, if possible, published. Might I be a healthier person if I reflected purely for its own sake instead of feeling obliged (as I do) to reduce the results to words and upload them to this blog? Very likely so—but writing is what writers do, if not precisely what they are.
All of which suggests that it’d be a good thing for me to get out of town, which is what I’m about to do. I fly to Chicago later today, there to spend two weeks staying in Our Girl’s guest bedroom and rehearsing the Court Theatre’s new production of Satchmo at the Waldorf, which opens in January. That’s not, to put it mildly, a vacation, but it’ll pull me out of my accustomed routine, which will surely be a good thing. Nor will I need Miranda to get from Our Girl’s apartment house to the Court’s rehearsal space, which is just three blocks away. I expect I can use the walk.
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Excerpts from “Living Doll,” an episode of The Twilight Zone written by Charles Beaumont, scored by Bernard Herrmann, directed by Richard C. Sarafian, and starring Telly Savalas. June Foray supplied the voice of Talky Tina:
Bernard Herrrmann’s complete score for the same episode: