“Welcome! How can I help you today?” I asked as the store doors opened.
The first customer was an older gentleman who I’d glimpsed pacing outside like a taunted zoo lion for at least a half hour before we unlocked the door.
“You’re finally open,” he gritted through his teeth. “I’m here to get a new phone.”
So began one of many interactions I have as a writer who moonlights in sales for a certain technology company. The retail store is frequented by diverse customers. The wants, needs, and preferences vary as wide as desire. Yet all customers come to the store for a common reason. They seek human help with the inhuman devices that have embedded themselves so deeply in their lives.
My job is less sales and more customer support. I work with everyone and never know who exactly I will engage with next: technology enthusiasts, business people, retirees, harried parents with children in tow, and international visitors shopping for gifts. I try my best to answer their questions and make wise decisions. What I cannot do is reconcile the messy ambiguity of real life with the tidy construct of life as presented by our devices.
I can commiserate, however. Smartphones, computers, and the software that runs them have muscled in on even mundane errands and tasks. Our gadgets promise efficiency yet often bring more complexity. The file cabinet-like rigor demands additional steps to complete simple tasks: “Tap here, then there, then here . . .” On top of that, we face a tyranny of choice: more ways to do the same thing. More to do, more to decide, when what many of us are wondering is, how did we arrive at this point?
Let’s pick up our story with the gentleman looking to upgrade his phone.
“Great, let’s get started.” I motioned for him to join me by one of our display tables. “If you don’t mind, I have a few questions to ask—”
“What is there to know?” He snorted, tossing his scuffed device on the table. “I need you to do everything. I have no idea how this works.”
“No worries, I’ll walk us through it,” I said under his glare. “OK, who’s your wireless carrier? Is your phone backed up?”
“Um, Verizon. You can check.”
“How about I show you how to check,” I offered.
He looked as if I’d suggested we balance his checkbook. I tried again, “If you open the Settings app, I can show you—.”
“You do it,” he said, waving at the device, careful not to touch it.
“How about I show you? It’s simple and really useful. Backing up your phone not only preserves your data but also enables us to set up your new phone.”
“No. I don’t come here to do it. I come here so you’ll do it. I have a life to live, and I just want this thing to do what it’s supposed to.”
At first, I wondered at the lack of curiosity to understand technology that he relies on every day. Upon reflection I see his point: he shouldn’t have to be curious. We live our own rich lives, enabled by technology. When it works well, technology ought to work for us, rather than we work for it. Consider telephones as recently as the 1980s. We picked up the receiver, dialed a number, and reached someone. A simplicity to envy now. We didn’t need to know how phones worked. They just did.
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