This is sort of an extension to my haranguing on quality – and hopefully a conclusion to the topic. Upon his return from town yesterday, my boss made an observation to the effect that it is sad how older people refuse to embrace technology. Implied in the statement is the notion that spending time becoming familiar with every new innovation that comes down the pike will somehow improve the quality of life. My poor boss: what he doesn’t know – and what he cannot know until he has lived for another twenty years or so – is that most technological innovations represent an increase in the amount of time that an individual must invest in getting a reaction that is inferior to the one received prior to the innovation.
The best case in point that I know of is the steady decline in communications since the advent of the virtual switchboard. Prior to the “press one for sales; press two for more sales” era, an actual person answered company telephones (usually within two rings). This person, known as the “switchboard operator” did not waste your time by reciting a menu of options but instead immediately directed your call as instructed. The switchboard operator, usually a woman, was also aware of the whereabouts of everyone in the building at any given point in time and was capable of taking messages (for those who were too low on the totem pole to have a secretary) or was capable of tracking people down immediately if the call was urgent. I think it is very easy for anyone to see how this is a superior system on several points. The most obvious is that there was NO phone tag when switchboard operators existed – the operators knew where everyone was. Also, I really appreciated the fact that companies did not waste my time by reading their useless menus to me. I think we all know that it doesn’t matter whether you press “one” for sales or “two” for existing orders: these calls are all going to the same place in the end. Older people know this because we’re the ones who invented the stupid technology in the first place.
And the poor man who invented the virtual switchboard – I cannot recall his name and it won’t come up on Google search – actually made an apology to the country on national news in the 1980s, saying that it was never his intention to have it be used the way it ultimately came to be used.
Another reason marked difference between the ways different generations approach technology is that we (we being the older generation) were the generation that endured the transition from full service to no service. This was rather like boiling lobsters. You know, they say that if you place a lobster in cold water and gradually raise the heat to boiling the lobster never knows it. Well, I don’t know if that’s true or not – but I know that each time we accepted an inevitable change in business in the 1980s and 1990s, the change invariable meant more work to be done in an increasingly less efficient fashion. As new technology was being introduced, it was our understanding that some new set of underlings would operate the crap. It is an apparently forgotten phenomenon but many of the derogatory acronyms we use today originated in the 1980s and 1990s to describe this sort of work. You know the way WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) described the first time we had been able to actually see what we were typing on the screen in the manner that it would print? Well, terms like “dweeb” came along to describe other new things. It amazes me that an internet search dumps the term “dweeb” in with “nerd” and “twerp.” But in the mid-1980s we used “dweeb” to describe a functionary whose entire responsibility was to make the perpetually evolving technology operate. I’m not talking about I.T functions. I’m talking about conversations like “Hire a dweeb. We’re paying you too much to be typing,” (or doing keypunch or to be setting up forms or anything else that was done on a computer. And a “dweeb” was “dumb-work -- electronic execution business.” This was the person who operated the increasing number of early DOS programs – such as Lotus 1-2-3 – and basically you “dweeb-ed” everything if you were mid-level management or higher. The dweeb did the input and print out – and you marked it up and handed it back to him or her to input the corrections. This, by the way, was replacing green-bar reports that had previously been handled in much the same way (somebody did the actual writing or typing and the mid-level manager reviewed and commented).
Now, twenty years later, poor mid-level managers and even department executives must do their own report generation and then comment on them. And this is better? I’m not so sure. I still liked it when directors began sentences with “We pay you for your expertise – not to type.” I would love it if someone would say that to me today. So, for my young boss I would only say: let’s get together in twenty years and see how you feel about technology. I have a feeling that our perspectives will more nearly align by then.