Thursday, October 6, 2011

Too Excited for Tech
October 2011

You might think I would get all excited at all this new technology. After all, I’m a science fiction fan, as well as being a thin boned person with an excitable metabolism. So yes, I enjoy accelerating up to the “excitement” gear… but that doesn’t mean I enjoy disengaging the “common sense” gear.

I winced when an overly excited journalist, in my staid solid local newspaper, ignored standard journalistic practice: In an article, he wrote only the word “app.” Come on, app? Do you think my dear old dad would “get it?” For journalists, the standard practice is to write out any abbreviation in full, the first time it is used in an article, even if “everybody knows” what it means, because “there are new babies being born every minute who do not know.” (App means software application)

But some people get too excited. I am old enough to remember when technology was very expensive. Back when French was compulsory for admittance to university, when every second high school student was taking French, in my own high school there was only one French lab, with tapes and headphones, for my whole school. And in my community college, the computer majors had to come in at midnight to get computer time: There was only the one glassed-in computer lab. So today, just as I instinctively turn out the lights when I leave a room, I also instinctively think computers are expensive...

No wonder I am skeptical of the expense when I hear excited parents saying they want computers for every single student in every single classroom. “Computers are the wave of the future!” they say. “We have to start in grade one,” they say… as if our kids will need to put in a lifetime of man-hours on their computers, just as our aristocratic ancestors needed a lifetime on horses in order to show a “good seat.” I say, calm down.

No, I don’t want my nephew to grow up to be laughed at for being less skilled with computers; no, not in the way that less affluent little officer from Corsica was laughed at by the rich aristocrats because he couldn’t ride as well as they could. The poor little guy ended up getting a “Napoleon complex” and attacking Russia.

But what if, when our kids grow up, learning a computer will be as easy as learning a car? Or, if it’s harder than that, what if takes no longer than a year? Let that year be in the final school year. Then if employers and the community and the recent graduates themselves all report back that a year is not enough, start them in the last two years. And then, if needed, the last three. That would be a lot cheaper than a computer on every single desk in every room in the school. (Say, can the kids see their teacher over their monitor?)

Sure, I think it’s practical to have some computers for all the school grades, and, I also think it’s practical to keep from panicking about the future. From what I have seen of human nature, computers in the future will probably turn out to be like public libraries, or ten–speed bicycles: More features and gears than you’ll ever use. (Libraries in this century feature much, much more than just paper books and magazines)

Taking some time to consider human nature is common sense, and using common sense is what keeps me calm and grounded.

I learned skepticism at an early age. I was a boy, drawing rockets, when adults were saying that in the future—a far off future, mind you—people wouldn’t have rotary telephones anymore: Instead they’d have visiphones. You know, with a TV screen. So I drew visiphones, too. Later I would see them on Star Trek, and give them no thought. But as a child I thought: What about privacy? And wouldn’t people prefer to concentrate only on sound? I figured that when I grew up, and had a telephone of my own, I would often talk with my eyes closed. One day, as a teenager, I read the best seller by Helen Gurley Brown, Sex and the Single Girl. Brown said how nice it was for a girl to only attend to sound. And around that time I read an old nonfiction work by science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke. It turned out you could buy a visiphone today! They were stocked in a warehouse, in—where else?—Southern California. The phones, it turned out, were gathering dust. One might, at the very least, expect a bunch of millionaires to “buy out the store” so they could talk to each other, but no… It seems millionaires like privacy and only attending to sound, too.

I realize, of course, that engineers and computer guys will always enjoy bending over their workbench tinkering with new gadgets and apps, but at the end of the day? They still need to lift up their eyes and reflect on human nature... I’ve written here before about fools who surf all day without ever reflecting.

My guess is that recently an entire software development team at Google got too excited. Harmfully so. The nerds must have said, “Oh boy, here’s another app feature!” They forgot to consider human nature. I will explain.

The Google host for my blog, Blogspot, allows me, for my eyes only, to see a page list of 25 of my essay titles at a time. Of course, this means scrolling down because there’s just no room for 25 blog titles all at once on my screen. At the bottom I can click on “see older titles.” Or, I used to. It has just changed. Now, this “new, improved” Blogspot means I have to scroll all-l-l the way back up again before I can click. It’s an irritation, a needless design error, but I’m merely irritated, not dismayed. It’s not like anyone’s feelings will be hurt. Meanwhile, until recently, I could deliberately click on “statistics.” Then I could see my “top ten posts,” by hit count, for the last “day” or “week” or “month.” It was my choice—but not anymore! Now, for the new exciting blog, always displayed right along with my list of titles, whether I want it or not, is the “cumulative hit count” for all time. Now I’m dismayed.

Going wayyyy back to my first 25 posts I am amused to see a lot of cumulative hit counts of zero. Good thing I didn’t know that at the time, eh? All that work, scrubbing and polishing my pretty little prose… all for nothing. Of course, as an “artist” and “professional” and “middle aged man” maybe I wouldn’t have minded, maybe… I can imagine a young American in Iraq, intent on the war on terror, working hard, striving to inform citizens on the home front, telling her fellow Americans some stories about the Iraqis trying to learn democracy... only to find her successive posts, about something so important to America, getting hits of zero, zero and zero. That would hurt.

Logically, I know, a brand new blog “should” get no hits, but when cold logic smacks up against the number Zero, the collateral damage is to folks of flesh and blood. So, then, why did Google remove any choice for seeing cumulative hits? What were they thinking? I usually think of nerds as being apart from the crowd, but I guess at Google a whole crowd of nerds got excited. I’m reminded of a science fiction fan’s badge from the 1970’s that read “Go Lemmings Go!”

I say, "Let's stay calm." And so I remain skeptical about tech. I am always happy to race along in the excitement gear, but only so long as my car runs on Good Sense tires.

Sean Crawford
Having two space pills for breakfast,
Then holding my cape aside,
To get into my flying car.

in the 21st century,
Calgary, Alberta

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