Oh, I suppose there are Luddites and technophobes, but having made a living writing for the computer industry over decades, these terms don’t seem fair in describing me. And fairness is important. Because I am on trial. Or have I already been sentenced? Hard to say where the proceedings are, but it’s not going well for the defendant.
My friend Andrea recently sent out an all points bulletin concerning her mind-boggling attempts to get a home wireless network functioning. Oy. Hours and hours on the phone. Trips to the local Apple Store. Ultimately to be rescued by, you guessed it, some undaunted person who sorted through the technology tangle. So, what about all this? Why bother with the topic? Because there is an answer, and it must have something to do with technology and age.
Take my recent experience with stamps.com. And this isn’t so much a technical issue as a sign of my personal times. Why not print stamps at home on your own PC? I mean, why not? Especially if you are disabled, poorly organized and know that technology is, in the big picture, a remedy for both conditions. After all, were it not for voice recognition software, this blog would not be happening. Truly, and humbly, I owe my living, or at least my past employment, to technology. If I had been injured just a couple of decades earlier, writing might have been so arduous that my output would be minimal, my options for expression few. Not to worry, for things went in a different direction. Fortunately, very fortunately.
So what about stamps.com? I responded to a promotional e-mail, did a quick glance around their website and decided, what the heck. For $16.95, okay. No more ordering stamps, manipulating them with one hand, etc. Also, no more storing or even ordering stamps. Not nirvana for this quadriplegic, but something. Okay. Sign me up. What happened next was what one would expect to happen next. $16.95 disappeared from my credit card reserves. A large envelope arrived in the mail with a diskette, forms, instructions.
Now, let me make it clear. Nothing in this envelope posed a technical challenge. Still, it posed a threat. Something new. Something to read and understand and learn. The labels and diskette and instructions sat around my desk for weeks. I admit this. I am not proud. Finally, the time came to insert the…no, it wasn’t a diskette, was it? Those don’t exist anymore. It was a CD ROM. Except that isn’t the term. Maybe it was just a CD. I don’t know, or I’m not absolutely certain. Remember, we are not talking about something obscure. We’re talking about a basic digital medium, something pervasive…and I’m not sure about even this.
See what I mean? If you don’t dig your fingers into the technology cliff, you slip right off it. And to think that at one point I would pen whole articles on topics such as orthagonal distortion in chipmaking photolithography. I did this, because I had to. Life is like that. Some people have to clean toilets at Safeway. Some people don’t have jobs at all. We do what we have to do. And now that I don’t have to do anything when Messrs. Stamps.com come to call, in a manner of speaking, I tend to quite easily flip them off. In the nicest and most passive sort of way, but this is what it amounts to.
Time passed. It has a way of doing this, and with the arrival of my next credit card bill, and the one after that, something dawned on me. This $16.95 for the services of the online postal meter people at stamps.com, is not a one-time thing. It is a monthly charge. Seventeen bucks for what? I mean, the truth is that months go by without a single stamp touching my fingers. This $16.95 makes sense on a monthly basis for a small business. For me, it is preposterous. The simple answer. Which of course is no.
Much of what one buys online by way of services has a Roach Motel quality about it. You check in, but you don’t check out, not without difficulty. Welcome to the Hotel California.
In short, this necessitated a phone call. Why was I not pleased with stamps.com? The question floored me. A reasonable enough and perfectly standard inquiry, but I simply wasn’t ready for it. I stared down the phone line, regretting this was not possible, phone line staring. I fell uncharacteristically silent. What did I like about it? In the silence, I could almost hear the stamps.com guy tapping his fingers. The poor schlump probably worked in some boiler room operation under contract to the postage company. At that juncture I saw no option but the truth. I told him. Seeing the U.S. Postal Service logo on the stamps.com website gave me the false impression that this was an official government service. Not surprising that the agency that handles mail would modernize. The U.S. Postal Service for 2011, why not?
Closer inspection had revealed that this company was actually a licensee of the official US Post Office. All of which brought me to a crossroads of old and new. Being an old liberal, I am attracted to the notion of a government service that is modernizing and wants me to keep up with it. What’s new is that the USPS isn’t so much modernizing in this arena as subcontracting. Or is it? Apparently you can print postage online through our own government USPS. Or generate labels. With postage. Still, the USPS seems to be directing everyone toward vendors. Ship-n-Click. Or was it Click-n-Ship? I don’t care. I don’t trust these people. I trust the post office. I want to go postal.
How quaint. Right? Don’t I know that everything Big Government does is characterized by incompetence and amounts to state-sanctioned larceny? And now it becomes apparent. I’m not confused by technology but by modernity. I can’t get with the contemporaneous program, that is my problem.
The problem with stamps.com, the guy on the phone points out, is that I have already sunk a fair amount of money into their service. So why not at least use the promotional postage that comes with the deal? I see his logic. I fall silent. He promises to send me another startup kit. I have a bunch of the company’s stuff on my desk, but being unclear about what comprises startup in the online postal sense, I agree.
Time is not on my side with stamps.com, this is clear. When the next pile of coupons and CD and labels arrives courtesy of the USPS, I do as instructed. The first step is to print off a whole bunch of stamps. This is done with a set of special labels. No big deal. I select the $.44 option, insert the sheet of labels the right way and hit ‘print.’ Soon I have a whole bunch of, well, stamps. Big adhesive stamps. Some of them have enormous versions of the billowing American flag. Others have messages attached, such as, ‘happy holidays’ or ‘we are moving.’ Or even better, ‘we appreciate your business’ and, my favorite, ‘your message here.’ I carefully, very carefully, wrote down the date to phone stamps.com and officially terminate the service.
Which I did. Why was I doing this, a woman at stamps.com asked? This question also threw me. Why? Why was she asking me this a second time? Would I tell her why I was unhappy with stamps.com? No, I said, I would not. I let the silence hang in the phone line. Better than hanging up, it seemed to me.