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The curse of the computer

OK, let me say right off the bat, I know we are stuck with computers. I understand they have become indispensable. I comprehend they are deeply imbedded in the fabric of our lives. Maybe that’s my problem.

OK, let me say right off the bat, I know we are stuck with computers. I understand they have become indispensable. I comprehend they are deeply imbedded in the fabric of our lives. Maybe that’s my problem.

True, every new advance in machinery, science and technology has been met with skepticism, doubt and even anger. The first autos were cursed because “those damn things are scaring my horses.” Even more graphic is the wonderful Charley Chaplin movie “Modern Times.” My recollection of the scene where the plant supervisor gets stuck in the gears, popping in and out of view as Chaplin tries to extricate him, still brings a smile to my face.

Well, I guess that is exactly what has happened to our society in the age of computers. We are stuck in the “gears” of a mesmerizing, anti-social, and impersonal technology from which we will likely never escape. And, to me, it does not bode well — nor is it pleasant — in a variety of ways.

First, there are the hypnotic aspects of a computerized world — one in which we have our heads locked into machines (both at home and the office), with minimal interpersonal human contact. I spent 45 years in the ad-agency business, virtually all of it as an owner. One of my greatest pleasures was walking through the office daily, schmoozing with the staff, meeting to generate ideas and exchange client information, and simply interacting with people in a pleasant and useful way — sometimes just to chat and laugh. Relationships bloomed.

Stuck in the ‘gears’
No more. I am still engaged as a partner in business today, because at 75, I am too young to retire. But it is a lot less fun. In every office I visit, folks have their heads stuck in the “gears” of the computer — just like the event that struck poor Charlie Chaplin. It is today’s “Modern Times.”  And frankly, it is kind of sad. It makes me glad I pursued my core career in the era I did, because the future of office life seems pretty dreary to me.

And computers are just a part of it. We seem to be “plugged in” 24/7 at any and all locations.  Cell phones, Blackberries, iPhones, etc., are on everywhere and all the time. Text messaging has become the mantra of the younger generation. There is no escape, no refuge, no hiding to just “be alone.”  Few, if any, quiet times exist now — pathetically, not even on the golf courses, I have noted. Spelling, grammar, and language are kaput.

Probably the most egregious of the excesses now are those folks who have attached the cell phone permanently to their ear, and walk around talking to no apparent person.

It is not only the intrusiveness of this “connectivity” which is disturbing; it is the way life has speeded up because of “connectivity.” Thirty years ago Alvin Toffler, in his highly regarded book “Future Shock,” warned us that it was less the direction of change that can create psychological and sociological problems than the speed of change (which he called “accelerative thrust”). Interestingly, “Future Shock” has recently been reissued. Clearly and sadly, Toffler’s “collision with the future” has arrived as well.

The fragility of today’s systems
There is an even darker side to all this — it is the extremely fragile nature of the technological society we have constructed and now live in.  As a flying officer in the Air Force in my younger days (in the ’50s), we were made aware that various systems (especially electronic ones) had far greater chances of breaking down as they became more and more complex. After months of teaching us how various technology works, our trainers said that if anything electronically did go wrong in flight, be sure the equipment was “on,” check circuit breakers, then forget about fixing it. So it is today.

Though we have improved reliability and redundancy exponentially from those earlier days, we have increased the complexity and scale of technology exponentially as well. We have put ourselves in the precarious position of total dependency on technology and the Internet, which run our communications, business systems, email, and other critical processes to keep our society and economy functioning. Further, we have become equally dependent on the techies who keep it operating — while they continue to create new technology at a frightfully alarming rate. Should this fragile dependency thread ever break (or be damaged), we would be in big trouble. It is a bit scary — a little like having the machines run us, rather than controlling our own destiny. Has “HAL” from “2001, a Space Odyssey” actually arrived?

Well, that is my critique, fears, and curmudgeonly comments on today’s version of “Modern Times.” The Little Tramp would be proud of us for extending his incisive commentary into the 21st century. Having said that, I will now “spell check” my article, copy and paste it into an email, click “send” — and turn off my word processor for the evening.

Myles Spicer of Minnetonka has spent his business career as a professional writer and owned several successful ad agencies over the past 45 years.

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