Can We Get This App(liance)?

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I know this much is true. My parents were much better at saying no than I will ever be. A simple word, one that is out there almost before you know you’ve said it, and yet I choke on it. Not my parents. They relished saying no. Is it generational? I don’t know. But I do know that the advent of smartphones — and with them the never-ceasing can we get this app question – has shown me to be a traitor to my own Spartan upbringing.

Speaking of smartphones, a word about artificial intelligence. Everywhere you go, all you hear is that robots are taking over. Doctor, lawyer, journalist – no profession is safe from the long arm of the algorithm. Breathless talk of the coming day of singularity, when artificial intelligence will surpass all human knowledge.

Here’s why everyone should relax. First, just look at your vacuum cleaner. Do you really see him in your pipe and slippers, flipping through the current issue of Salt Water Sportsman? Me neither. And second, if machines will truly be like us, then they’ll be like us in all respects. Smart? Yes, but also, petty, vindictive, selfish and, ultimately, lazy. Just as soon as they have the conn, they’ll outsource everything right back to us. So we’ll again be sitting in a seventh floor cube farm in accounts payable, wondering why the new receptionist always seems to notice Chet’s cologne but never mine, and the machines will go back to being pencil sharpeners, calculators and whatnot. Circle of life.

But back to smartphone apps. At first the novelty of them made me indulgent. I suspect many parents acted this way. It was amazing what the boys at Apple had enabled. I started rationalizing, coming up with nobler and nobler justifications. With these apps I am arming my children with weaponry necessary to contend in a digital future.

Now I realize they were just playing me, showing me only the apps they wanted me to see, like Vocab-Master. Visions of perfect SAT scores, early admissions and valedictory addresses rich with T.S. Eliot references clouded my judgment. But then they made the classic blunder of overplaying their hand. App or no app, no adolescent uses the words stevedore or meretricious as often as they were. I knew they were up to something. It soon dawned on me that for every app designed to raise one’s IQ, there were an equal number of irretrievably stupid ones, like Rhymes with Cat, that they had downloaded, and these were the ones being used when I wasn’t around. It’s just 99 cents was compelling for a while, but not when asked twice a day, month after month. One day I looked in the mirror and didn’t like the face staring back at me: I had become a yes-man to my kids.

And so I recalled the example of my parents. A duke and duchess of dashing hopes, they were. And not afraid to discipline. Mom could answer truthfully that she didn’t believe in spanking, but this was only because she found the head-knuckle much more effective. Dad so frequently meted out arm punches – tattoos as they were innocently called – for real and perceived transgressions that sometimes he got ahead of himself in the count. Rather than apologize, he’d just say “that’s for something bad that you’ll do later.”

Saying no wasn’t a big deal to them. Keep in mind that often they were saying no to things they themselves wanted. They just didn’t want to pay for them. So really what we’re talking about here is a game of chicken, and in this game they never swerved. Recall the pace of innovation in the 1980s. As hard as it is to believe now, it was pretty rapid technological change. Nothing like today, mind you, but getting things like VCRs and microwaves when they were introduced was pretty heady stuff. If for a moment you doubt this, look at the label of a ravioli can from back in the day and compare the cooking instructions for microwaves and conventional ovens. I will paraphrase:

Microwave Instructions: Heat for thirty seconds and brother, before you have time to salivate these babies will be piping hot and ready to eat.

Conventional Oven Instructions: Don’t make plans, because baking bread under the Santa Fe sun will be quicker than what you’re about to undertake. Why don’t you just get a microwave?

The thing is, if we kids thought about it for even a moment we’d have seen that mom wanted a microwave even more than we did. The last thing she wanted to be doing after a long day’s work was to be standing at the stove and tending to cube steak, a meal that invariably signaled a babysitter was on the way. (Never did I see my parents themselves eat cube steak.) Eventually my brother broke down and asked — no, begged — for a microwave. For his birthday. When presented this way my parents signed off on the request, quickly enough to suggest that they’d had their eye on a make and model for months.

My brother got the last laugh, insisting that as owner he was entitled to keep the microwave in his bedroom. Strangely, dad was okay with this. He prided himself on being a tad unpredictable, and always kept a little crazy in reserve. Like when he decided that AC/DC “sounded suspicious” and proceeded to smash my favorite cassettes with a hammer, right before my eyes. At some level I think he was proud of my brother for outfoxing him. For weeks he traipsed up the carpeted stairs, sloshing his green and red sauces deep into the runner to warm up his chimichangas, just like everybody else. It was ultimately my brother who relented, and only because he found that he couldn’t sleep with the stench of egg rolls, processed meat and marinara sauce that forever hung above his bed.

The next year it was my turn — I got the “family” VCR for my birthday. Having no television in my bedroom, I had no real leverage on the location issue, so almost immediately it was hooked up downstairs for all to enjoy. So my children, it’s good to be you — you get apps for the asking, while we got appliances for our birthdays!