Please don't tell me technology is here to make our lives more pleasurable.
I scream at gadgets far more often than I do humans. The volume is higher, too -- by a factor of three, minimum.
Hundreds of thousands of Americans evidently shared my technophobia this week, as they tried to access a federal health insurance website that essentially fled from the hordes.
It's easy to say that's typical of government, but that's too narrow a critique. The private sector is endemic with similar problems. I've been through too many purgatories with too many utilities that have led me through the equivalent of a voice-mail snipe hunt that takes all morning.
I just spent three hours with one utility I won't name (but it begins with V and ends with N) to split one bill for five phones and wireless service into two bills, with the billings going to separate addresses. Lower back surgery was faster and less painful.
Computer prompts and robotic voice commands have become to the modern American what long bread lines were to citizens of the Soviet Union. We know the promise of a better life was a lie, but we endure these endless indignities to gather the small items we need to survive.
Thus it was a revelation for this technophobe last week to stumble upon some unexpected give in the electronic bars surrounding me. I felt a bit like Steve McQueen in "The Great Escape," rolling his baseball to the edge of the stalag fence and finding a blind spot between the guard towers. (Spoiler alert: This doesn't end with me jumping any barbed wire on my motorcycle.)
I'd just finished dinner last Thursday and flipped on the tube to see what was going on in the Dayton-Stanford basketball game. Underdog Dayton was winning and, even better, CBS Sports was evidently conducting an experiment: I could hear the crowd noise and the squeal of the sneakers on the court, but there was no play-by-play from any announcers.
I was in a blowhard-free zone! I settled in. I felt almost as if I were at the game. I didn't know much about either team, but that didn't matter. They were playing great basketball and I could marvel at their athleticism.
I wondered why CBS hadn't publicized this silence-the-announcers innovation. Maybe it had and I'd missed it, but this was much better than my trusty mute button. I could still hear the crowd's cheers, the rhythmic clapping and chants, the roar after a great play. And I was free of the know-it-alls micro-analyzing every dribble, spouting more numbers than a lottery machine.
I hadn't intended to watch the entire game but there was no reason to leave it. Then, during a break in the action, I changed channels and realized what I had done when turning on the game.
Somehow, I'd hit the Spanish translation button on my remote. That's why I couldn't hear the announcers. None were speaking Spanish, and so I could hear only the ambient sounds of the arena in Memphis. It was the best sound to come out of that city since Stax Records' heyday.
At least that's my deduction. When I switched the remote back to English, I got the announcers again. I used them a time or two, just to get a quick overview, but mostly stayed with my newly discovered setting that all but put me in the stands.
I don't know if this would work on anyone else's remote. If your TV room is like mine, you have about a half-dozen clickers, one for everything from the stereo to the DVD player, and pity the stranger who attempts to figure out what powers what. When I tried the Spanish translator on some other shows recently, it had no effect.
Maybe it was a one-day fluke. Maybe, as Rod Serling would tell me, I'd traveled through another dimension -- a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind. A journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination.
Or maybe I finally got lucky with technology. All I know is, when I called CBS Sports to suggest that the network sports guys make this a regular option, I was told my experience may have been a fluke. It might never work that way again.
The next morning, I began my bill-changing ordeal with the phone company. After being transferred by robotic prompts and humorless humans to enough people to man a volleyball squad, and being on hold long enough to finish both the Jumble and the crossword puzzle, I got the bills straightened out. I don't think you'd have wanted to hear my ambient sounds.
Brian O’Neill: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1947.