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American Idolatry

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Last week I signed on for the Comcast triple play, which brought our triumvirate of phone-internet-TV under Comcast's wing. It also simultaneously catapulted us back to the Land of DVRs (Digital Video Recorders), a place from which we had reluctantly decamped after our last TiVo box died months ago.

With DVRs, we've learned to start the recorder, then begin watching shows 10 or 15 minutes after they actually begin. The practice allows us to blissfully sail straight through commercials on a kind of joyride. Fast-forwarding makes me feel giddy and anarchic, like I am engaging in something revolutionary -- albeit a lame sort of Digital Age revolution, its rebels armed with thumb-controlled remotes, asses planted firmly on the couch.

So last night the kids and I were parked for the season finale of American Idol, a program that we love to both deride and debate about... but never miss. For us, the ending of Idol is a bit like the first robin of spring, a signal that heralds: It's May. Winter's over. It's time to get out.

Last night was the end of Season 7, a five-month journey begun during the short, cold days of January and ended with a two-hour showdown: David Cook vs. David Archuleta. Of course, joyriding as we were through the commercials, we cruised through the show in about an hour and 45 minutes.

Every time a clump of commercials loomed, we two-stepped around them like we were avoiding a nasty dog pile on the lawn, all the while congratulating ourselves for our brilliant move to return to DVR-ville. My teenager Evan commented, "Isn't it great to not watch the crap parts of the show?"

Now, the way that the Comcast DVR records is to stop exactly at the top of the hour. And so, at the top of the hour, with a crucial few seconds to go before the climax, host Ryan Seacrest announced, his voice crackling with excitement, "...the American idol is..."

Then it ended. The DVR stopped playback and we were dumped into the show in progress. For a confusing few minutes (an eternity!), while the kids screeched protests and my brain tried to work out how to resume the show -- can I replay to catch the unrecorded bit? How? -- we were lost. Stunned. Stuck in Fox TV purgatory. We didn't know which David had been anointed. It was a wholly unsatisfying climax after two hours of tease.

And so our DVR went from being lauded to loathed. The kids, each independently, hurled an insult or two at it. My 11-year-old's eyes, which had been screwed shut in anticipation of the winner's being announced, now flew open in outrage and she erupted with a passionate, "I hate Comcast!"

Within minutes, of course, we pieced it together. We had missed the actual announcement, and the DVR had resumed Idol a minute or two after the winner was announced. Though all we saw was lots of cheering and hullabaloo and both Davids smiling-crying, we eventually deciphered that the David who was still standing front and center (Cook) was the winner, and the David being group-hugged by the other runners-up stage left (Archuleta) was not.

In truth, of course, it wasn't Comcast's fault: Idol ran long. I pointed this out to the kids, but I couldn't help but empathize.

Isn't this the role technology increasingly plays...? As much as it makes our lives easier, more effortless, efficient, or just plain nicer, technology also makes us dependent, and sometimes maddeningly needy. The price we pay is our inability or unwillingness to live without it. It's the price we pay for an iPod that can house the entire Beatles catalog, Maps 2.0 traffic navigation , HDTV, GPS, smart phones, iPhones, and the "Finding Nemo" playing in a minivan backseat DVD player.

As Robert Roy Britt writes, when technologies like computers get "more powerful and complex and useful and finally vital, they gradually began to rule us rather than the other way around."

And then there's the issue of when it fails us.

As my father used to say of his Maguire relatives, "The Irish are tall, except when they're not." So, too, is technology wonderful, except when it's not.

Ann Handley also writes at her personal blog, A n n a r c h y.