Last week, I left a voice-mail message for a friend, that we would not be able to meet at our home the next morning as planned. The next day, while we were away, she showed up as originally scheduled, and what’s worse, rather than take her own car, she got a lift from her son. He merrily went on his way, leaving her futilely ringing our doorbell. Realizing we weren’t home, she reached for her cellphone to call her son for a pickup, only to discover she had forgotten it at home. Eventually, she had to take several buses in the frigid January cold, in order to get back home.

I saw her yesterday and she confessed that she had been away from home the evening that I left the voice-mail, and she didn’t know how to pick up messages from a remote location. I tried showing her from our home phone, but it didn’t work as she hadn’t set up her service to allow for remote message access.

I asked her if she had email, to which she responded positively, but she added, “I only pick it up once a week”.

We got into an interesting conversation about technology, from which I realized that once a technology is widely embedded in a society, it carries with it certain expectations and obligations. If you have voice-mail, people come to expect that you will actually use it! If you have email, people can reasonably expect that you will access it with some reasonable frequency. In other words, technology is like being a little pregnant; there’s no such thing. Once you commit to a technology you have an obligation to learn and use it in a way consistent with its purpose and, more importantly, the expectations of others who interact with you on that technology.

It’s like some of those early Beverly Hillbillies episodes, where Granny would pick up the phone upside down and start screaming into the earpiece instead of the mouthpiece.  She would then throw down the phone in disgust, unable to use it properly and blame it as a useless “contraption”.

One of my friends refuses to have a computer. He has no cellphone. He has no clue about email. And I absolutely respect his decision to not engage with those technologies, because not having them creates no expectations on my part.

My wife has frequently had the experience of sending a class cancellation e-mail several days in advance (she teaches yoga for seniors), only to have people show up for the class regardless. They start calling her to complain why she didn’t contact them. She reminds them that she sent them an email to the address they provided. The answer is almost always the same, “Oh, yes, but dear, I never check that!”.