Merry Christmas Keep The Hi-Tech


December 19, 1993|By MIKE BURNS

Barbie delenda est!

That paraphrased Latin war cry of Cato the Elder against Carthage, the North African nemesis of the Roman Empire 2,000 years ago, flashed into mind as I staggered through the aisles of local toy stores this holiday shopping season. Barbie must be destroyed!

The once-blond mini-mannequin, who now changes her hair color as often as she changes her never-ending array of fashions, reigns over an empire of products that can bring a parent to tears. Her various occupations/hobbies/vacations (each with appropriate costume, mode of transportation and accouterment) have more permutations than the state Lotto tickets.

The list of Barbie's doll friends created over the years to dispel her bouts of loneliness would fill a metropolitan phone book. Her "fun" dwellings have expanded to house a St. Bernard comfortably, and cost more than enough to feed that beast for a year. Who will stop the madness?

No visions of sugarplums danced in my head as I fought through the crammed, endless aisles of the toy stores, trying to work my way through an unending letter to Santa from the little ones that would fill the better part of a CD-ROM disk.

Yes, CD-ROMs and "game systems" and computers are now essential for youngsters to play the games that used to be contained on a cardboard game board with some plastic markers, a stack of cards and a pair of dice. Books that kids once read from the printed page are now flashed from computer disks to PC screens, enhanced by distracting animation and sound that seem aimed at hindering rather than facilitating reading. You can pay hundreds of dollars for an electronic atlas ++ that "speaks" the same basic facts that a kid could read even faster from an old-fashioned book.

Video games and "edutainment" programs are becoming too large, too detailed for the stand-alone game systems, and even for the rather formidable memory of a conventional floppy disk. They need that added CD-ROM drive to handle their memory requirements. But what have they done for the human user's memory requirements?

Are these powerful gigabyte animations more fun, more stimulating, more educationally rewarding than their inanimate forebears? Or are they simply expensive, power-draining bells and whistles added to the original, with the added disadvantage of leaving nothing to the individual child's imagination?

Brooding over this pedagogical conundrum, I gravitate to the kitchenwares section where every culinary task has an electric solution. Battery-operated pepper grinders and garlic presses, specialized griddles and baking machines that are designed to turn out a dozen variations of a grilled cheese sandwich, food processors in all sizes with an arsenal of high-tech blades -- power tools that isolate the cook from the touch and smell of the ingredients.

Metal cookware in infinite variations all promise the perfect preparation: non-stick and non-scorch and even-heat-distribution. Aluminum and copper and stainless steel and anodized metals pots and pans, with bare polished surfaces or coatings of porcelain or Teflon or "space-age" compounds.

But the same type of question arises: What has this kitchen technology wrought that can produce better-prepared, better-tasting dishes than those cooked up for generations with more fundamental utensils and appliances? If they make kitchen life a little easier, then there's a true advantage. But most of them don't; if they save on food prep time, they take it back in time used to disassemble and clean up the parts. Don't forget to avoid submerging electrical parts in water, "treat" the surfaces to maintain optimum cooking qualities, and find room in the already crowded cabinets for yet another apparatus.

In the electronics store, I ponder the entertainment centers that allow us to see a picture within a TV picture, playing at fast forward or slow motion, while simultaneously recording a televised classroom lecture and a feature movie, both of which we'll never have time to sit through anyhow. And a remote control to click between the 500 available channels with nothing on. Technology has taken us far, but it's the ride rather than the view that excites us.

And the complexity of these systems has made repair an economic folly. When my TV with these push-button frills refused to turn on recently, the technician informed me that a simple transistor had failed. But he couldn't tell which one, and it would cost almost the price of a new set for him to find and replace the faulty small part.

So when a mechanical flap broke on the VCR, I decided to fix it myself. After three letters and $20 sent to the parts supplier for a piece of plastic that wouldn't cost 50 cents to manufacture, I spent three hours of grief getting the replacement part installed. And this all occurred after trying to call the manufacturer's service phone number, which resulted in a series of recorded messages that concluded with the maddening admonition to "check your local yellow pages" for service shops.

These shopping safari musings convinced me that it's going to be a low-tech Christmas at my house this year. No "user friendly" gifts to make the computer crash, frustrate the holiday dinner chef, or force a costly Hobson's choice on the recipient should it break down. If a gift is the wrong size or color, well, that should be comparatively easy to exchange. Unless we're talking about the infinite incarnations of Barbie.

Mike Burns is The Baltimore Sun's editorial writer in Harford County.

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