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Gristmill: Down Among the Skells

Wed, 07/21/2021 - 16:29
A U.S. Department of Agriculture worker at a switchboard in 1972.
National Archives and Records Administration

It was just a throwaway line tucked somewhere in the midst of Paul Theroux’s 500-page “O-Zone,” a dystopian novel before dystopian novels were in vogue, this one involving a Middle Western territory laid waste by a nuclear disaster, which in turn reveals the zone not to be uninhabitable at all, but rather paradisical, in a backward-looking sort of way. At least in comparison to the tech and drug-addled mess that was made of the 21st century as envisioned in that 1986 book.

“Technology was either aesthetically pleasing and easy to use, or else it was worthless.” Why that’s stuck with me, I’m not sure, but of course one who would’ve agreed was the late Steve Jobs, the driving force behind the ubiquitous iPhone, but who apparently emphasized in his conception the “phone” part, seeing it as one that played music, for example, but not something that took over your life and addicted your children.

Not to get all Ted Kaczynski on you, but clearly we’ve placed too much faith in the digital. Never mind the bizarre spectacle of hairy-knuckled Skells, Diggers, or Roaches (“O-Zone” terms) of Eastern Europe hacking into and disrupting the Colonial Pipeline up and down the East Coast. (A pipeline: Can’t even that be kept to the dials, needles, and gauges of the analog?) No, I’m talking about simply navigating, say, a college’s website to find out stuff.

Yes, they’re all nice looking at this point, with pretty pictures of trees, quads, and happy students, and with attractive fonts, and, heck, even some useful information. But you can lard up a F.A.Q. page all you want, the organizational logic does not hold, and you set your mouse to sounding like a click beetle fighting for its life in a Mason jar as you cycle through tab after tab and page after page, a few too many of them “not found,” until finally you just want to talk to someone, anyone who might know something that can be imparted simply and quickly.

No such luck. The offices are closed, thank you very much. And anyway, didn’t you know there’s a pandemic on that doesn’t seem to be going anywhere?

After I hung up, I was left wondering if anyone uses voice mail anymore. I certainly didn’t. So everyone’s working from home? I bet a switchboard operator à la Lily Tomlin’s Ernestine could’ve patched me through.


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