Off-the-shelf finds new shelves

“Okay, let’s see what we’ve got,” I said to no one as I scanned the CDs. Who Wants to Be A Millionaire, $3.97. Timon and Pumbaa’s Jungle Games, also $3.97. Tarzan Print Studio, $3.67. Hmmm, wonder why he’s cheaper?

I turned and started back along the wall of colourful boxes and decided on Winnie the Pooh Print Studio. It came bundled with a box of Lucky Charms which I don’t much fancy but, hey, Winnie the Pooh.

“Excuse me, young man,” I turned at the compliment and found a smallish senior citizen. “Would you know if there’s any cereal in this grocery store without a CD-thingy. I’ve looked about but…” she tailed off.

“It does remind one of a discount software store, don’t it?” I replied. “But no, I think all cereal comes with a CD now. But the disc’s free, so you can chuck it in the bin at home and no loss.”

Her small smile told me I’d said something asinine. “My dear young man, nothing is free.”

I began to retort that the price of Count Chocula and Rice Crispies had not climbed but just then a man, waving an apologetic hand, reached for a DVD copy of Air Bud, the full-length Hollywood movie. It cost $3.99 if you were willing to put up with the Corn Pops.

“Excuse me,” the man said to the little old lady,” but why wouldn’t you want a CD?” I took a closer look. Thin, stoop-shouldered, sporting a disservice of a haircut.

“I’m not interested,” she replied. “This stuff – computers, you know – I mean, who needs it? We didn’t have it in my day and we got by fine.”

The man appeared a little saddened by this. “My dear lady, computers are revolutionizing the world. Our communication is faster, our business processes more efficient, we are safer and better informed. Our lives are better.”

“Pshaw,” she said. “Are you happier?”

“Um, what?”

“Are you happy? Listen my boy: if something doesn’t make you happy then it’s not worth duck feathers. You’re better off without it. So, does all this technology stuff make you happy? Make your life brighter, or less bothersome?”

“Err, well…” He was stumbling. I stepped in. “Well, this Winnie the Pooh CD pleases me no end.” I got another small smile, and just then my beeper beeped. I slapped at it but the damage had been done.

“Well, okay, it can be intrusive, and I do spend a lot of time fiddling with my PC, and I get too much e-mail, and we’ve all spent a tonne of money on this.” I was on a roll now. “And ultimately, I suppose, I’m not really sure if I am more productive. Or even, for that matter, happier.”

“Yet you tell me this is free,” she gestured at the breakfast food. “Nothing is free. We pay for all these baubles somehow.”

“Too right, missus.” A twenty-something man who had shelled out a lot of money to look casual walked over and snagged a box of Fibre-Os without checking the CD. “We pay for everything.”

Haircut looked annoyed at the intrusion. “We do?”

“Oh, aye. I heard some of what you all were saying, and it’s bollocks to think technology is making us more efficient. Them high-forehead blokes told us years ago that we’d be working four-day weeks, even three. What happened? We are, in fact, working harder for less money.”

“Oh come now,” said the nebbish. “We have networks, Web banking, wireless messaging, CADs and CAMs, and e-mail. E-mail, by God!”

“E-mail,” Mr. Casual shot back, “is the worst of the lot. Sure it’s fast, but every second I gain using it is lost when I have to delete Spam or look at the latest funny video sent to me by 10 buddies.”

“Now, see, I’m not on the e-mail,” the little old lady said. “In my day…”

I turned from the group at that point and headed for the pizza aisle. I’d come in for calories, not a discussion on modern society. Technology, I thought, finds you. Even in the corner grocery.

Wolchak ( is a freelance journalist in Toronto and a former editor of ComputerWorld Canada.