Wednesday 30 Sep 2009
Scroll back three decades with me. Texas Instruments has just released its first home computer and the gatekeepers to technology open their humble shops, beautifully clean, beautifully quiet, carpeted, furnished with curious ergonomic kneeling chairs. The small computer store has the convivial hush and vibe of a library and the owners practically live there, so truly engrossed are they in the emergence of the new inventions they vend. You remember these guys…dressed casually to the point of rumples, stains on their button-up shirts worn notably sans neckties, often bearded, chubby, bespectacled, soft-spoken with an air of pleased abstraction.
The world may dub them nerds or geeks, but as a little girl making frequent trips to the shop with her computer programmer father, I know these men are wizards whose spells speak of sprites and ROM, floppy disks and if/then, Basic and text adventures. I learn magic passwords like random from them as they kindly suffer me to kneel in all of their chairs, doodle on their koala pads, run my small hands over all of their keyboards. In fact, I think the wizards hardly notice me, so intent are they in their conversation with my father about two strange creatures known as peek and poke.
Yet, while I hunt the wumpus, I am listening to their knowledge and their world becomes part of mine and my whole approach to the land of technology is filtered and colored through the lens of gentle familiarity and an acceptance of children as small apprentices to the craft. Their shops were spare and sparse, their manners often awkward and opinionated in their zeal, and their love of electronics marked them as an odd minority in that distant age, but how I miss these guys!
A crashing wave of nostalgia hit me this week when my laptop died and I was forced to visit Best Buy in the nearest major city. I searched first to see if any of the small businesses had survived and though I found a couple clinging to the misty borders of box store homogeneity, none of them carried laptops and so I was forced to enter the giant sliding doors into a realm that feels to me anything but human. The thudding noise – this underlies the whole Best Buy experience as various TVs, computers and video game systems vie with one another to make the deepest boom and the most jarring screech. You cannot escape the disorienting cacophony no matter which corner of the store you seek and it reaches its uncomfortable apex when you approach the shelves of technology. The floors are unyielding to the feet and the ceilings loom darkly out of sight. There is no place to sit down.
Gone are the bearded wizards with their passion for long chat and and the thrill of the newest thing, replaced by tense-looking youths who doubtless have their winning qualities but who are very obviously just doing their job. No one is happy, no one is excited. Jeff D. approaches, half-choked in his executive tie, sales folder in hand, alarmingly trained in the upsell.
When you take your computer home, he warns you in monotone, it will not boot up and belong to you. It will belong to Windows and Norton and a dozen other companies who will plague you with popup installation ads unless you pay extra to have those workers Best Buy dares to term ‘geeks’ remove these programs for you. In fact, unless you pay extra, the computer may not work when you get it home. Pay extra for inspection. And even if it works for a few weeks, if you don’t pay extra for a warranty, they will feel no shame about not helping you. You can log into Best Buy’s website and give Jeff. D. a review as a favor to him, but he will never become your friend in the computer shop. He will always remain just Jeff D. and he probably won’t be there the next time you visit Best Buy. He will have moved on to work in another big box. Perhaps that’s just as well for him.
My Atari 2600, built in 1977, still works beautifully and so do all of its games, but my Compaq Presario, built in 2004, didn’t last 5 years before it was so broken that replacing the parts would have been almost as expensive as buying a new model. I’m typing now on my new HP laptop and it’s very shiny and very slick, but it won’t become my companion as the TIs and Commodores and Atari 800s became in the homes of yesteryear, proving their worth by sticking with us for the long haul. My HP will break in a couple of years, and even with my expensive upsold warranty from Jeff D., I will probably end up buying whatever they’re selling in 2013. I won’t haul my broken box into a shop where the wizards feel personal regret and accountability over a weird boot error, where they will huddle over my keyboard trying to work some un-do spell and continue to earn my trust, friendship and business for the long haul. The wizards are gone and Best Buy has gobbled up their realm, replacing the healthy drive for a good reputation with the sickly complacency of monopolistic ‘who cares?‘.
The proof in this is that we’ve been utterly burned by Best Buy in the past. They sold us a defective part once that crashed our company’s main computer, and not only would they not give us our money back for the bad part, they also charged us for looking at the broken computer. The ‘geeks’ were glassy-eyed and defensive…seemingly not out of loyalty to their big box but simply out of uncaring policy. No one was helpful. No one cared. We left their domain with hot faces and unspoken curses on our lips but here we are, doing business with them again, certainly not because they’ve earned it but because they’ve managed to become the only game in town.
Once upon a time, the local small computer store was the only game in the town where I grew up, but how different their efforts to gain and keep customers and friends were! They are long gone now. Did it not pay to be passionate, honest, accountable, generous, fair? I am wondering about the lesson in all this. Why did our society look the other way when these small, worthy businesses disappeared, one by one, off the map, falling beneath the shadows of the generic box stores?
I can’t see that we gained anything good in this trade-off of franchises for family-owned businesses. But I’m sure I’ve gained a very different attitude about entering the land of technology in modern times. I am wary. I am irritated and on-guard against being treated with indifference and hung with absurd price tags for purchases that break after a few years’ use. I am longing for some chubby, bearded fellow to lean across the bulk of a big cream-colored monitor and listen to my tale of who I am and what I need and then solve my problem by showing me, with pride, the very best solution to my quest. I’m yearning to hear him say, “let me know if you run into any problems. I’ll be here.”
Walking out of the inharmonious din and dimness of Best Buy this week, I realized my old magic passwords don’t work anymore. The quiet cult of technology of the late 1970s and early 1980s mutated into yuppie executive-ness and then was swallowed by the monsters of franchise. Everyone has technology now. And, in this, I see the true trade-off. The shelves of today’s storehouses are piled high with laptops, notebooks and iPhones, and they are the sum total point. Things are not cheap, but they are throwaway. The human element is what’s missing. The old gatekeepers, amiable, whimsical and charming, are gone. The machines rule.