Generally, I have great faith in modern technology. One must necessarily stand in awe of the human endeavor that has created the air-driven popcorn popper and the electric card shuffler. Recently, however, my faith has been shaken. The angst arises not from the demise of Skylab or the Three Mile Island fiasco. It comes from rather smaller concerns -- in fact, from mere wisps of paper. I'm referring to the "quality assurance cards" that accompany nearly every consumer product you can plug in, turn on or attach to your TV. These missives attest to the fact that your particular technological marvel has been carefully assembled, inspected and tested, and can pass the minimum competency requirements to which hair dryers, transverse axles and weedwhackers are subject. They are, in effect, your hot curlers' passport to consumerland.

Theoretically, QA cards are a sterling idea. It is inherently reassuring to know that Inspector 28, who presumably knows his ohms from his amps, has guaranteed that your new toaster won't turn your whole wheat into charcoal the first time you plug it in. And it is usually true that most deep fryers fry, food processors process and electric tweezers, tweeze long after their warranties expire. But in nearly every case, the accompanying QA card is worthless the minute you open the box. In fact, based on my recent experiences, I would wager that a large fraction of the inspectors who man the quality control corps of our industiral giants are direct descendants of Inspector Clouseau.

As a case in point, I cite recently purchased portable tape recorder. When I opened the packing box, I couldn't find the QA card. No matter, I thought, as long as the machine worked. But it didn't. I performed all the prescribed rituals. I read the instructions, inserted the batteries, turned off the Pause switch, turned over the cassette tape, re-reread the instructions, turned on the microphone switch, even filled out the warranty -- all to no avail. The tape recorder remained silent. I then realized that the missing ingredient in my switches brew was the quality assurance card. The unit had obviously never been inspected by Inspector 63. That was straight-forward enough: no QA card, no working tape recorder. A principle you could really believe in. However, as I was packing the recalcitrant recorder back into its Styrofoam macaroni, I discovered Inspector 63's errant epistle, jammed between the magnetic play head and the capstan drive. Alas, Inspector 63 was on the job.

A variation on the theme of the strategically placed QA card usually occurs when you must assemble part or all of your mechanical masterpiece on your own. You have inserted all the tabs A into all the slots B, and have come to the paragraph in the assembly booklet that reads:

It is extremely important that you assemble the fuel rod dampening mechanism exactly as shown in Figure 2-B.Failure to follow the proper assembly procedures automatically voids all warranties, both stated and implied, and may deem the owner liable to federal prosecution . As, with some trepidation, you turn to Figure 2-B, you find that Inspector 32 has pasted his "nom d' assurance" on the card so it covers all of Figure 2-B, except for the radiation hazard warning in the lower right-hand corner.

Quality assurance cards can also be the source of a more subtle strain of technological angst. Consider the case of your new hair dryer.It was reasonably priced and highly recommended by all the consumer magazines as a choice example of quality materials and workmanship. It looks nice and works perfectly, but unfortunately has come without its QA card. You're certainly not about to return such a fine product just because a slip of paper wasn't attached to it. Inspector 77 was probably in the middle of telling a funny story, or maybe had to use the restroom, when your dryer trundled by on the conveyor belt, and he forgot to include his card. This is a somewhat unsettling oversight, but nothing really to worry about. However, you've heard some worrisome news about labor-management troubles in the assembly plant in Fresno. Maybe some disgruntled hair-dryer assembler convinced Inspector 77 that labor's demands could be furthered by passing a dryer with just the smallest wedge of plastic shaved from the inside of the nozzle. This tiny flaw could, under normal conditions of heat and air speed, hurtle a molten plastic projectile from the maw of your dryer at twice the speed of sound. The resulting insurance claim would bring the corrupt company management to its corporate knees. Something to think about, especially when you consider how closely the act of blow drying your hair resembles a classic suicide pose. But no, this blow-drying time bomb had better go back to the store in the morning.

The list of QA card experiences of any hardcore technology junkie is long and fascinating. And as with chess matches and hatchet murders, there are classic cases that are widely known and discussed. They include the bilingual, three-page combined quality assurance statement and instruction booklet invariably printed in Portuguese and Danish, and the transistor radio box containing 12 QA cards and no radio.The ultimate QA card experience, however, is so universal that I am sure one of its variations is familiar to every consumer in America. It is called "The Big Mumble" by QA aficionados, and its elegance and simplicity are well illustrated by the card I recently found attached to a brand new filing cabinet. The names and numbers have not been changed to protect the anonymous.