I was in the Apple Store last week getting my iPhone's battery replaced under recall. I was told to wait at the table where they make all the desperate and confused patrons sit, kind of like some sort of technological group therapy. While there, we all overheard the interaction between the "Genius" and a woman who appeared to be about 70 and was having problems with her iPhone. She was immaculately dressed in that upper middle class elderly widow style, with older, tasteful jewelry and a structurally sound yet small-ish bouffant of peach-colored hair.
The good news was that they were going to replace her phone under warranty. It went bad however, when they asked her if she had backed up her data recently. She went rather blank at that question and it turned out that she had never heard of backing up data, had never attached her phone to a computer, and was instantly reduced to tears at the thought of losing her pictures and emails. Through the quiet sobbing we learned that her kids who live in another state had given her the phone and it came in such a nice box.
One of my many psychological quirks is that I am a sympathetic crier, which can be either embarrassing or endearing, depending entirely on the situation. This was the former, so just as this woman's memories were about to be cruelly sacrificed on the altar of technology, I turned around and became profoundly interested in the Apple Store's selection of Hello Kitty iPhone 4S covers. Such a spontaneous display of sensitivity often used to get me laid, but now it just elicits a snide remark and an eye roll from my wife. She's realized that it's reflexive, not unlike how some people are sympathetic vomiters.
This horrifying little slice of life has a happy ending however, as the folks at the Apple Store violated their own rules and backed up this woman's data to iCloud for her and then restored it to the replacement phone. Now this is not all some sort of endorsement of Apple – as a company they are often huge pricks and the people who staff their stores often hoist their prick banner proudly. My focus is on a device that had become profoundly ingrained into the fundamental quality of this woman's life, yet she had no idea how it truly functioned. Certainly her age had something to do with this, but so much of life has become that Arthur C. Clarke quotation: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." People just accept the magic now and move on until it breaks.
By the measure of the interwebs and those who reside within it, I am an old. Often as people age, it seems that they get consumed with fears about the changing world around them and I am falling right into that old trope. My fear is becoming that old woman in the Apple Store, dependent on things I don't understand how to use. Being a man, I have confronted this fear in a frenzy of activity and overcompensation, becoming knowledgeable (or so I think) about every device I use on a daily basis. I have begun amassing tools. To repair.
I'm now obsessed with cable shows like "How It's Made" and other such engineering porn. I have become the guy at the party who will tell you exactly how your FitBit works. My wife is quick to point out that we've also become the couple that doesn't get invited to parties much anymore. Threatened by this, I point out that I assembled our computers (like the one I am typing this on now) from parts ordered on the web, thumping my chest much like a mountain gorilla with a screwdriver. I'll bet none of those people have ever done that. This is likely a true statement, although for her it conjures up images of a 17-year-old third-world factory worker in a clean-room who has ask to pee every six hours, and not the second coming of Charles Babbage.
There is a light at the end of the tunnel - for the other people in my life anyway. Despite all my new-found knowledge and my vast array of thoughtfully acquired specialty tools it turns out that I am a rather ineffectual repairman. Most of the stuff we use that breaks regularly is not repairable in this disposable world, or makes no economic sense to try, even to me. Most everything is either sealed in plastic or (in the case of the iPhone battery and my car) requires proprietary tools and machinery that civilians can't afford.
I'm left with being the guy who can't actually fix it, but I can tell you why it broke, and how they should have made it so it could be repaired. Which would now make me my father, my uncle, Abe Simpson, and every other old guy who won't shut up about how they don't make them like they used to. Perhaps I should work on fixing that instead.