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Call me an old fogey but our kitchen at Christmas had more gadgets on show than Mission Control for the Moon landings
23:53 GMT, 27 December 2012
On the day the world didn’t end, our eldest son fell asleep on the train home from a Mayan-themed party. He woke up to find that a fellow passenger, in the true spirit of the modern Christmas, had relieved him of his wallet, mobile phone and iPod.
Ah, well, at least the thief had spared us any agonising over what to buy for the 27-year-old who has everything.
So it was that my wife dispatched me the following morning to our local branch of Currys/PC World to fulfil my responsibilities as a partner in the Insurance Company of Mum and Dad.
Gadget show: As I've confessed before, I'm a card-carrying member of Technophobes Anonymous. I wish I could talk authoritatively about gigabytes, microprocessors, mega-pixels and connectivity. But it's no good (picture posed by model)
She would replace his wallet, she said. But whatever I may have written last week about women being better adapted to Christmas shopping, buying electronic gadgetry was clearly a job for a man.
Now, as I’ve confessed before, I’m a card-carrying member of Technophobes Anonymous. I wish I could talk authoritatively about gigabytes, microprocessors, mega-pixels and connectivity. But it’s no good. I belong to a generation whose childhood was over before the dawn of the mass computer age, and I’ve never caught up.
Indeed, there’s nowhere on Earth I feel more uncomfortable than in a shop full of the latest in high-tech wizardry. But I accepted my mission like a man.
As I’d feared, the moment the young salesman clapped eyes on me, he had me accurately marked down as the one born every minute, as ignorant and vulnerable as a babe in arms. All I could do was throw myself on his mercy. He had none.
I came armed with only two pieces of wisdom. The first, as even I knew, was that modern smartphones do everything short of the washing up — from accessing the internet to taking photographs and videos, and recording and storing music. So if I bought our son one of those, there’d be no need to buy him an iPod as well.
The second, as I remembered one of our other boys telling me, was that these days only a complete idiot buys a pay-as-you-go mobile phone, like the one I gave our eldest some years ago. The thing to do is to set up a two-year contract with a network provider, and they’ll throw in a state-of-the-art handset for free.
When I told the merciless assistant that this was what I wanted, he started firing a battery of questions that left my head swimming. Which provider did I have in mind Was my son a heavy user of text messages or was he more of an emailer Which handset did I prefer Roughly how much was I thinking of paying
I couldn’t answer any of them — not even the last, since I hadn’t a clue how much phone contracts cost. There was nothing for it but to mutter feebly: ‘Well, what do you recommend’
A sign of the times: Modern smartphones do everything short of the washing up – from accessing the internet to taking photographs and videos, and recording and storing music
With a mocking look of pity, not far short of contempt, he was off again, gabbling through the details of the various deals on offer and comparing the technical specifications of the latest generation of iPhones, Nokias and Samsungs, in language that meant nothing to me.
When I could take no more, I plumped for a 24-month Vodafone contract in the low-to-middling range, reflecting ruefully that I was committing myself to spending double what I’d intended, and that I’d still be paying for this year’s present two Christmases hence. Never mind. I was ready to pay anything to get out of there.
But still my ordeal wasn’t over. The assistant sat me down by his computer to take my personal and bank account details, marital status, length of time at current address (since long before you were born, young man) and everything else he needed to set up the contract.
Once he’d discovered my first name, he kept dropping it into the conversation in a way that struck me as insufferably patronising. ‘Now, Thomas — or shall we be informal and call you Tom — can you just tell me your security code, Tom That’s the last three little numbers on the back of your card, Tom.’
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I felt like snarling: ‘No, let’s be formal and call me “Sir”.’ But since I’d already exposed my ignorance of the modern world, I realised climbing on my high horse would only make me look even more ridiculous.
‘Just one little phone call, Tom and we’re all done,’ said my tormentor at last.
He rang the number, spoke for a moment, then narrowed his eyes at me. ‘Did you know, Tom, that someone of your name, living at your address, has an existing contract with Vodafone That wouldn’t be you, would it, Tom’
As the truth dawned on me, I’ve never felt such a twit. I rang home to consult the victim of the theft (first name also Thomas, though we call him George). Yes, he had a contract with Vodafone — and, no, he didn’t want a new one. They were sending him a replacement sim card and all he needed was a new handset.
And there was I, thinking the phone he’d had stolen was the pay-as-you-go job I’d given him only a few years ago — or about 20 generations ago in technology terms. How’s a poor old fogey to keep up
I asked the salesman to cancel the contract he’d just set up so laboriously, grabbed and bought a random handset — and fled from the shop, wishing fervently that I hadn’t passed on all my bank details, which must now be hanging somewhere in the limbo of cyberspace.
Did I say there was nowhere on Earth I feel more uncomfortable than in an electronics shop Well, that’s if you don’t count the technophobes’ nightmare of my own kitchen on Christmas morning.
As I stumbled downstairs in my dressing gown, it was like walking into Mission Control during the Moon landings — except with more computing power on display, by a factor of several billions, than was available to Nasa in 1969.
With seven of us in the house, including son number two’s girlfriend, something was charging from every socket in the room — whether an iPad, laptop, Kindle, sat-nav, iPod Shuffle or smartphone.
I had to unplug George’s present to make myself a slice of toast. (Would-be burglars please note, most of the family have since left, taking their gadgetry with them.)
To add a surreal touch, our young visitor was on a video link to Australia, Skyping her mother, who had just got back from the beach.
The modern way: With seven people in the house, something was charging from every socket in the room – whether an iPad, laptop, Kindle, sat-nav, iPod Shuffle or smartphone
I hid from the webcam in horror. I’m camera-shy at the best of times — the last thing I wanted on Christmas morning was to be seen on the other side of the world, by a lady I hardly know, haggard and unshaven in my dressing gown.
Yes, of course, I realise that all this new technology represents a truly awesome achievement for mankind.
I’m lost in wonder at the miracle of Google Earth, which allows me to zoom in on the gardens of Versailles, the back-streets of Rio or to see an aerial view of the house in Melbourne from which the lady on the laptop screen is offering Christmas greetings to her daughter in my kitchen.
But as I looked around the room, at the spaghetti of wires charging that astonishing array of devices, I couldn’t help thinking the great Trevor Baylis may have had a point this week when he warned against our increasing over-reliance on computers.
The Google generation, said the inventor of the wind-up radio, is in danger of becoming ‘brain-dead’ as children spend all their time tapping away at electronic screens, instead of developing creative and practical skills with good old-fashioned Christmas gifts such as Meccano.
My own suspicion is that, when the end of the world as we know it comes, it won’t be as the Mayans predicted (or didn’t predict, as some experts tells us). Rather, it will be brought about by an electronic superbug that swallows up all our bank accounts, bringing commerce and capitalism juddering to a halt, leaving the world’s population at a loss to know how we coped before computers took over our lives.
On that gloomy note, and with unseasonal curses to the fiend who robbed my son on the train, I wish all my readers the very happiest of New Years.