The smartphone, and other terrible inventions

David Bullard writes on those pieces of technology that make life worse


I was at a friend’s 70th birthday celebration a few years ago and in his speech he remarked that it had been a privilege to live in an age in which so many useful things had been invented. A good point I thought as I remembered my mother on the traditional Monday, washing the family clothes in a bath, then putting them through a large hand wringer clamped to one of the kitchen surfaces before hanging them out to dry in the scorching September Surrey sun. No surprise that back in the post war years of the 1950’s the whole of Monday was set aside for washing.

So when a top loader washing machine became available and financially affordable my mother was delighted although she still had to use the hand operated clothes wringer. Eventually someone had the good sense to invent a front loading washing machine with a spin cycle which eliminated the need for a hand operated wringer.

The Bullard family was drawn to this new technology as a snail is drawn to a lettuce leaf and when the heated tumble dryer became commercially available at an affordable price Mum’s wash day blues were banished forever and left her with at least an extra eight hours on a Monday to perfect her considerable sketching skills. ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

Washing machines and tumble dryers were followed by other great labour saving devices such as dish-washers, vacuum cleaners, microwave ovens and food mixers (we still own a 53 old Kenwood Chef which works perfectly). All these gadgets and gizmos changed the way we all live and leave us much more time to concentrate on the more enjoyable things in life.

But not every new invention is to be celebrated and this is where I have to respectfully disagree with my 70 year old friend.

When the CD player first appeared in SA around 1983 I rushed off and blew my bonus on a NAD CD player with suitably powerful NAD amplifier and a couple of Wharfedale speakers. Which was great until I discovered that there were only a limited amount of CD’s available and I would still need to keep my turntable to play vinyl records. This didn’t particularly bother me since I had bought a Linn Sondek turntable from a friend and had a great selection of vinyl which I had brought over from the UK.

However, as CD’s took over and my usual Sunday afternoon haunt of Hillbrow Records eventually morphed into CD Wherehouse I started to experience Luddite leanings and greatly mourned the move of music to CD. It had nothing to do with the poorer sound quality which, despite protestations from my audiophile nerd friends, I honestly couldn’t hear or give a toss about. Rather it was all about the touchy-feeliness of what was called an album and particularly its wrapping. Something that a CD could never emulate, however hard it tried.

Back then we bought an album not just for the music but for the artistic design of the cover (Hipgnosis were the kings in my opinion) and the pretentious sleeve notes describing how the band had got completely smashed on recreational drugs and decided to record the new album in a barn in rural Wales.

The other great thing about vinyl was the double album so you got a complete fold out, sometimes accompanied by a poster and other fan paraphernalia. I don’t care how digitally enhanced The Beatles White Album has become on CD I’m afraid there is no substitute for the original.

But I’m already living in the past (thanks Jethro Tull) because my local Musica has closed and CD’s are now yesterday’s news. Now people ‘download’ music from something called the ‘Cloud’ and that is about as satisfying as sex without foreplay. Admittedly vinyl had its limitations such as having to get up to change the side of the record just when you were getting to first base but at least CD’s offered a miniaturised version of the album cover and some sleeve notes.

With a download you get none of this sensory delight of ownership and it’s hardly surprising that much of today’s music is as bland as its method of delivery. Oh Grave New World (thanks Strawbs).

This has led me to thinking about inventions we could happily do without. I have no doubt that the Nutri-Bullet has revolutionised many people’s lives but isn’t it just a food blender in drag? Surely you can achieve much the same effect by dropping a whole lot of breakfast ingredients in a food blender; say a couple of sausages, some tomato, a scrambled egg and a large shot of vodka, and reducing them to liquid for a breakfast on the go? What’s the big deal with the Nutri-Bullet?

And then there’s the SMEG designer toaster in the colour of lady’s mascara that sells for R4 400 for the four slice model. Have we gone completely mad? There is an equally competent toaster which admittedly comes in plain old stainless steel that does the job for an eighth of the price.

But my best is the electric salt and pepper grinder with LED lights at around R600 a pop. I do have a bit of arthritis in my hands these days and sometimes have to find a teenage neighbour to take the top off the pickled onion jar for me but I’m still capable of grinding a pepper mill manually. You would have to be seriously afflicted to need the electric version but, even then, you may not have the strength in your hands to push the operating button let alone choose the strength of your grind.

I doubt whether the inventor of the battery operated salt and pepper grinder is going to find him or herself alongside Isambard Kingdom Brunel in the pantheon of great contributors to modern civilisation.

However, I reserve my greatest loathing for the so called ‘Smart phone’ without which we are now non-citizens. When mobile phones first appeared in the early 1990’s I was an eager early adopter with my brick-like Motorola.

Then as technology advanced I went lighter and moved to Nokia. As a friend remarked at the time, ‘the cell phone is the only thing that a guy brags about when his is smaller than the next guys’. Various models followed, some clam shell, some with a pretty crappy camera, some with radio connectivity but none with the dystopian threat of the Smart phone.

Now we are in the era of the Smart phone and everywhere you go you will see people staring at a screen as if hypnotised. The growth of anti-social media and data connectivity through Smart Phones has reduced the majority of the population to a sort of zombie status. I am now completely social media free but most of my friends and acquaintances are on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all sorts of other weird places with strange names.

These are all places where they can either flaunt their own good fortune or mock others and gather in howling mobs for the dismissal of those they deem unworthy to exist. It’s not a very happy place to be as I am sure Helen Zille would agree which is why it’s a place worth avoiding, much as a public park would be worth avoiding during the hours of darkness.

The problem is that it is becoming impossible not to own a Smart phone, despite the prohibitive cost. If you want to be part of the modern banking world you need at least a Smart phone and probably a laptop also. That’s a modest outlay of around R20 000 just to be able to pay someone.

But it becomes much scarier. If I had told you 25 years ago that the government wanted to implant a microchip in your shoulder to monitor your movements you would have quite justifiably been livid. Fortunately the government didn’t have to bother.

You now walk around with your favourite toy which records exactly where you are to within 10 metres at any time, tells a central computer how much you’ve spent and what you spent it on, uploads your personal pics to a cloud and tracks your medical condition if you’ve been crazy enough to download the App.

Big Brother may not be watching you but he sure as hell knows everything you say and do.