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Technophobe’s Trial by Fire

by Kathryn Boughton

My husband is a technophobe. Mention computers and he starts to utter imprecations. We are well into the 21st century, the whole world walks around with eyes glued to cell phones and global connectivity ensures the instant transmission of information, but I have just recently prized his ancient flip phone from his fingers and got him to use a smart phone. It’s been a struggle but he is gaining and sometimes even picks it up willingly.

It’s possible his aversion to technology began more than a decade ago, while he was still working. Back then we could only get to our little house in Maine about once a month and he was justifiably concerned that the house was left unattended for long periods of time. Particularly in winter mental images of a cold furnace, of burst pipes and of water freezing as it dripped down walls haunted us.

So we turned to technology to assuage these concerns and bought a simple alarm system that would call up to four numbers if the electricity went off, if the temperature dropped below a certain level or if the infrared beams detected motion—not an exotic system, but one that gave us more peace of mind.

When he installed it, my husband joked that the little man in the box would start calling us to complain that he was lonely and needed someone to come and visit. Shortly thereafter, he called. At 6:48PM one Saturday night, the phone rang and the “little man” announced that the electricity was off. My husband was not at home and I had no idea what to do, so I simply hung up. At 6:54 it called back. The electricity was off. I said, “Thank you,” hoping that it needed a verbal acknowledgment. “The electricity is off,” it responded. I hung up.

At 7PM it called back. The electricity was off. I began to silently curse my husband, who had not thought to share the code with me.

At 7:06 it called. At 7:12, it called. At 7:18 it called. At 7:20 my husband came home. “Your house is calling,” I said. “I know,” he replied. “It’s been paging me.”

The problem then took on a new dimension. When he installed the system, he failed to determine the code that would acknowledge the message (He still cannot grasp that you have to remember passwords). We did not know how to turn it off and the instruction manual was in Maine. At 7:24 it called back. At 7:30 it called. I punched in every number on the keypad. “The electricity is off,” it reiterated.

At 7:34 our son called in response to my earlier search for my husband. Peter took the call and looked puzzled when he heard a human voice instead of, “The electricity is off.” When our son stopped laughing, we hung up. The phone rang—clearly the little man in the box was frustrated at not having been able to get through. “The electricity is off,” he announced.

I suggested we call our next-door neighbor in Maine who had an emergency key and ask him to go unplug the phone. But Isaiah had an electric phone—and the electricity was off. At 7:48, the phone rang. The electricity was off, the voice said.

I suggested that we unplug our phone and turn off my husband’s pager. Then the full scope of the problem became apparent—it was his weekend to be on call. We could unplug the phone and use my mother’s phone, but his pager had to be on and it would summon us every six minutes until the power came back on in Maine. The pager would have to be checked each time to make sure it was not a business call. Clearly things were not going well.

Finally we decided to tell his answering service to call my mother’s number. The phone rang. The electricity was off. Peter unplugged the phone. He called the answering service using my mother’s line. Confusion on the other end. Would they remember to call my mother’s number? I asked. Probably not, my husband said. Another phone in the house rang. We had forgotten to unplug it and the electricity was still off.

He made another call to the answering service, reiterating that his pager and normal phone number could not be used. Two phones were unplugged, but we had forgotten the one upstairs. The answering machine came on—the electricity was off. I felt as if I were trapped in the “Twilight Zone”—blessed and cursed by the miracle of technology.

Finally, with the answering service fully apprised of our situation, with every phone in our house unplugged and with my growing sense of apprehension that I would never be able to reestablish our home network, we settled into a silent evening. The house in Maine could not call us—and neither could anyone else, other than the anonymous operator on the answering service. Ahh, progress.