The forever blinking 12:00

By Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic, May 2012

Power failures bring out the design flaws in our technology.

We’ve had our share of power failures these past few months, given that the island winds seem to relish throttling the tree tops and playing skip rope with the hydro wires every time the clouds loom low and sullen. You might as well haul out the candles and boil a last kettle when the strait turns into a herd of frothing, bucking waves all stampeding for shore. Soon the radio announces that the ferries have stopped running, and then the radio stops running too, unless you have one that can be cranked, which we did until the crank itself was inadvertently cranked off.

I don’t really mind a power failure so much. After all, we still have water and flushing toilets, and don’t need to worry about freezing to death. The candles cast a cozy glow, the quiet is wonderful (the average home literally hums with electricity), and we can rest assured that things will soon be back to normal. While waiting it out in our slippers and sweaters we munch on cold snacks and talk about putting solar panels on the roof.

For me the real hardship begins when the electricity is restored. The whole house starts blinking and bleeping and clamouring to be reprogrammed. The answering machine pipes up in a shrill voice, demanding to be set back on its electronic legs. The first time I heard “her,” she nearly startled me off my legs.

In the kitchen there are three clocks alone and each requires a different start-up sequence. Why does every appliance and electronic gadget need a clock? I’d ignore them all if it wasn’t for the forever-blinking “12:00”, a feature that must have come out of a design shop specializing in slow torture.

The stove needs two presses on the clock icon and then an input of the current time on the number pad. Here we stumble because I prefer to have the clocks show the right time while Wayne likes nudging them forward. By the time we reach a consensus, key in the agreed-upon time and “lock it in,” the clock invariably ends up being a few minutes behind.

The microwave calls for a completely different—and remarkably counter-intuitive—sequence, so it takes several beeps and boops before the clock starts working again. The under-the-counter radio is the biggest conundrum of all. Not only does the clock need fixing, but all of the preset radio stations have to be keyed back in as well. Fortunately my guy always remembers the procedure for the clock while I have the better knack for retrieving and “setting” our favourite radio stations. This appliance, obviously, would last only as long as our marriage.

Moving along, the sound system’s remote speakers need to be reset, which is usually my job since I seem to be the more agile one at climbing to the great heights of the upper kitchen cupboards.

Then comes a gadget I know nothing about. A gift from the younger generation, it’s one of those all-in-one nerve centres that constantly keep you updated on the date, weather, indoor and outdoor temperatures and relative humidity. It also tells the exact time, albeit for the folks who live in Saskatchewan. Visiting engineers and other exalted minds have tried to wrestle this clock into our time zone but mostly to no avail. It’s just as well since the next power failure would only trip it forward again.

At times all this technology feels unnecessarily complex and circuitous. There’s no denying it has some marvellous benefits: Just this past weekend we were able to stay in touch with our daughter from airport to airport as she made her way to Cambodia, this being her first solo international travel experience. (Flight delays, missed connections and an unanticipated rerouting through Bangkok made the link that much sweeter.) But as the devices and appliances in our lives keep upstaging themselves with more and more dazzle, the operating procedures also get increasingly complex and arcane. (Washing machines, for example, have become so electronically elaborate that I wouldn’t dare buy one without also buying the costly extended warranty. Even though I use only two of the 30 possible washing cycles.) Which leads me to ask: At what point are the gains no longer worth the overly convoluted design?

I like my technology practical, intuitive and working for me. The next time we have a power failure I just might unplug a few devices for good, especially the ones that talk back. Around here at least, I’m still the one who calls the shots.

When the crank radio fell apart Trudy Duivenvoorden Mitic brought out the transistor radio she’d received in her teens. The family laughed, but it still worked.