Isn’t high technology great? We could go on forever in this column and many more extolling technology’s virtues. But instead I would like to put in a word for low technology, and no technology at all — concepts that often appear forgotten in our dizzying ascent up the technological ladder.
In last week’s annual Survival Guide edition of this paper, Herb Spiegel, one of our experts who has counseled many small businesses, marveled at how various elements critical to business etiquette — such as the formal letter on company stationery and the personal assistant to answer the executive’s telephone — had been willingly sacrificed in order to accommodate the technology and streamline the operation. That got me thinking: How much efficiency is unwittingly compromised in order to stay on the high technology course to which we are all committed?
Early in our existence, back when U.S. 1 was still operating out of my garage apartment on Branch Alley in Princeton Borough, we got our very first full page, back cover ad. It was from a bank, and it arrived from a large ad agency via Fed Ex weeks before the deadline in a large envelope with a full size negative and a camera-ready positive on special paper — all the latest in photo-offset technology.
On the morning that the mechanical layouts were to be driven to our printer in Bridgeton, New Jersey, we gathered together the pages for that paper. Problem: No one could find (and to this day no one ever has found) the large envelope from the ad agency. It would take at least a day to get a copy made and another day to Fed Ex it. To avoid a temper tantrum in front of my staff, I walked up to Nassau Street to buy the morning papers. There, in one of our noble competitors, was the exact same ad printed at about the same size. I cut it out and put it in the box and took it with me to our printer. They shot that ad with their camera — neither the agency nor the client ever knew.
A few years later an out-of-town customer came to our office on Mapleton Road needing to photocopy something — our copier was on the blink. Where could he go for a copy? We gave him directions to the copy shop on Nassau Street, and to the one in Plainsboro Plaza. Someone began to draw a map and that gave me an idea. I asked to see the document that needed to be copied. I put it down, set a piece of paper over, and in less than a minute produced a hand-drawn copy of the document. He liked it.
If the only tool you have is a hammer, every job gets fixed with a nail. Maybe you have a digital camera and find yourself frustrated the same way I was until recently: You get good and sometimes even great pictures but they are all jammed into your memory card and floundering about on your computer hard disk. You don’t have the time to sort through them and print them out on special photo paper with a color printer that keeps calling for new cartridges.
Then I thought low tech: The memory card is just another roll of film. When it’s full I take it to the photo store, ask for prints (free doubles on Thursdays), and get a CD made, as well. The CD is like getting negatives back; the memory card becomes a new roll of film, and the prints are old-fashioned, low-tech prints, exactly what you want.
The other day the washing machine broke. The machine is a triumph of technology, I should add, because it has no rubber belts that sooner or later would break in the old-fashioned machines. Instead it has a drive shaft that (they never tell you) can also break, sooner in my case rather than later and necessitating an expensive repair (how about $200 for the parts and labor, compared to $400 for the machine itself?). All that reckoning aside, I had a large pile of soggy laundry in the bottom of the washer.
This time I thought no tech. Piece by piece I lifted the clothing out of the machine and wrung it out by hand. No wonder men of the pioneer days ran off to hunt and gather — wringing out clothes is a grueling exercise in comparison.
The other day at the office we ran out of postage on our Neopost postal meter. These machines are not triumphs of technology. Here we pay about $500 a year to use the machine and its companion scale, plus another $100 or so for ribbons. Hearing my complaints one of our staff began exploring the various Internet options for buying postage. At a cost of $15 a month, the costs were better than Neopost, but there were complications involving window envelopes, and we use about 300 of them every month. Finally we discovered an Internet service that would enable us to print out postage paid, self-adhesive labels. All we had to do was set up an account, keep it filled with money, and pay $15 a month for the privilege.
Hmmm. Postage-paid, self adhesive labels. That sounded like something I remembered from the PPM (pre-postal meter) days: Stamps! I bought three rolls of self-adhesive stamps (no more licking), charged them to the credit card, and savored the moment — a triumph of low technology.