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Illustration by Ryan Ward

Flicking your Bic beats rubbing two sticks together to
fire up the briquettes in the barbie, but all a musical can opener does is open
a can of worms. No wonder more and more people are feeling technologically challenged.
In less than 100 years, tech invention has forever changed the way we live —
and at a maddening pace. It’s hard enough keeping up with ever-changing cell-phone
plans. But technology is like walking upright; it’s part of what sets us apart
from other living things. It doesn’t just make things easier, it defines the
very flavor of our lives.

Forty years ago, high-tech might have meant color-coordinating
a Princess phone to an answering machine or paying for purchases with a credit
card. Times have changed. Last week I was lounging poolside in Palm Springs
while downloading IKEA’s idiot-proof kitchen planner so I could lay out and
order new kitchen cabinets for my family’s crumbling Long Island beach house.
On a plane to New York, I picked out the brushed-nickel hardware details, placed
the order, and received everything in time to put the kitchen together this
weekend. While on the go, I’ve used my computer to pay all my bills, turn on
the pottery kiln in my backyard, download my favorite Dutch-radio electronic
music, buy a smart mat-black single-control kitchen faucet online for half the
price charged by any L.A. showroom, play bridge with some buddies in London,
write this article and track down an old lover I haven’t seen in 20 years.

In other words, technology is nothing to fear (especially if you
read the manual first!). It’s a matter of finding the gadgets and inventions
that will improve your life and your environment, or at least make it more fun.
Check out the Roomba — a flying-saucer-like vacuum that roams the floor relentlessly
sucking up dust, dirt and debris (it even plugs itself back into a wall outlet
when it’s time to recharge). My dog Eddie loves it. I hot-glued a small kibble
bowl to the top so he can chase it around. Much more modern than playing fetch,
and I finally threw away his gummy old golf ball.

Stock marketeers can get Zen with an Ambient Orb, a small glowing
ball that changes color as the Dow Jones industrial average rises and falls
(it can also be re-tuned to respond to changes in the weather). And IKEA has
a nifty projector lamp that has interchangeable gels and cut-out shapes that
allow you to create endless colored patterns on walls, ceilings, floors, moving
bodies — it’s light as art form for under 50 bucks. Universal remote controls,
which used to seem like a couch potato’s toy, have become a necessity, especially
if your coffee table has turned into a tray for the endless individual remotes
in your life. Learning Touch has a cool LCD dot-matrix screen model that can
be programmed to run 18 different units, and it includes a clock/timer to turn
things on and off.

For shopping on the go, picture-taking cell phones totally rock,
whether for the house hunter who didn’t get a bid in because the significant
other couldn’t get across town to check out the dream pad or for the friend
who has to know if her ass looks fat in those pants. Pics are an instant e-mail
away. And there’s the car. And the cell phone in the car. If you must talk and
drive, use a voice-activated cell and keep both hands on the wheel. Then there’s
the wonderful new world of dimmer switches: The addition of one well-placed
switch can change the lighting in your home from “spring cleaning”
to “lovemaking” or any mood in between at the push of a button. Inexpensive
low-voltage lighting with a dusk-to-dawn switch adds atmosphere to any garden.

Of course, there’s technology that transcends mere utility. Take
the LG digital fridge-freezer with its built-in MP3 player, camera and microphone.
It even has full Internet access so you can restock the fridge online or check
out the latest news and weather — all without leaving the kitchen.

Whoever invented the wheel didn’t provide a manual. It rolled
off some rocky shelf, and mankind, left to its own devices, made it work. Thanks
to common sense, instinct and intuition, the world has been rolling around and
around ever since. But civilization has long been out of the cradle, and it
takes more than basic instinct to get the red 12 o’clock number on your VCR
to stop flashing. Remember, just read the instructions.