Key Changes

I found myself wincing at a recent article in the Times, titled “The Slow Extinction of Keys in a Digital World,” reporting on the dwindling use of traditional car keys and their replacement by various digital devices. The article describes the efforts of Tesla, BMW and other upscale car manufacturers to develop iPhone apps that let you unlock the car, start the engine, turn up the AC, and so on.

And I think, no, not keys!

I’ve often noted this instinct in myself, and a corresponding paradox: liberal in my political views, I’m temperamentally conservative in my approach to daily life. (Turns out it’s a fairly common paradox, and vice versa as well.) Put bluntly, I can’t stand change. All too often, my secret plea to the world boils down to a high-school yearbook banality: Don’t change! Stay as you are!

And change, of course, is life.

At least regarding technology, this aversion to change is clearly tied to aging. Anxiety about functioning in a world ever full of new gadgetry is a hallmark of middle age, especially in a youth-glorifying and technologically dynamic culture like ours. I recall my astonishment, twenty-five years ago, when my father – who was sixty at the time -- mentioned that he didn’t use ATMs. I asked why not.

“I don’t know how they work,” he said, sheepishly.

I was incredulous. “Dad, you’re a brain surgeon!” And took him to the nearest ATM and showed him how to use it.

But there’s also your sense of yourself in your world, in your life, and how you engage it, not so much functionally as existentially. The temperamental conservative wants the world to stay as it is – even, or perhaps especially, in the trivial, physical furnishings and realities that make up the dailiness of one’s life. Brand names and packaging, who’s on the ten dollar bill, state license plates, the musical theme introducing the nightly news, and on and on. Stay as you are!

What is so seductive, so alluring, about the way things have “always” been? (Does the answer perhaps lie in having had a happy childhood, as I did?) The temperamental conservative sees each small daily artifact and arrangement as a brick in the edifice of life as he has known it. Take enough of that away, and you’re not entirely at home in the world any more. You’re living in, say, 1979. Where’s my Walkman? Such people are prone to outlandish sentimentality, the ridiculous lump in the throat that you (well, I) can feel at something totally trivial – an image, for instance, of an old Swanson TV dinner package. That stuff, of course, was horrible. Yet I miss it! That lump in the throat is the sensation of the world moving on without you. You’re history, as we used to say.

The overarching technology trend my generation has witnessed is the replacement of objects by concepts, the physical and mechanical by the digital. I feel something like nostalgia when I see my young daughter ride the merry-go-round and grab the brass ring. Soon, it seems, she’ll be waving at it with a smartphone. I’m a fiction writer and essayist, so ask me to come up with a 500 word mini-essay on the splendors of the key – the traditional cut metal key – and I wouldn’t have a problem. My Keatsian ode on a key would include the thrill I felt when I held my first car key in my hand – the curiously small ignition key to the beat-up 1969 Toyota Land Cruiser I got at the beginning of college. I can still see that key as clearly as if it were yesterday, a glittering talisman of memory. Somehow it’s hard to imagine anyone rhapsodizing about their first iPhone key app.

Of course, if someone paid me, I could probably summon up the opposite position paper as well, advocating the key app – and I might begin with my relief at the prospect of eliminating the bulging knot of keys that jams in your pants pockets and is a minor bane of daily life as a male. The main points of that essay would be practical. Progress, after all, is all about practicality, not Proustian ecstasies.

In the end, I guess the point is to distinguish between those changes that truly are lamentable, where something important is being lost, and those that are, well, just different. Or even better. Let’s see. ATMs, people not smoking in bars and restaurants, total hip arthroplasty, TV pictures as vivid as life, relatively cheap plane flights, the Affordable Care Act. Some changes truly are beneficial.

As for keys, the total digitization of automotive access is still a work in, well, progress. There are obstacles:  data networks can jam, phone batteries run down, security and privacy concerns scare users. “The physical key will be with us for years to come,” says an engineer for one auto systems manufacturer. Phew! 

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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