For Better Or Worse

4 12 2011

My life took a fateful turn in Spring 1974 when, in my high school freshman Honors Math course, we were introduced to computers. These were not like any computers we use today, of course. And, truth be known, we never actually saw the computer on which we worked.

Yes, I used the singular. It was a mainframe located at the Illinois Institute of Technology in downtown Chicago. We were connected via a very clunky cradle telephone modem. And we had to take turns using our one TTY machine, a beast of a contraption that basically was a massive keyboard with a punched paper ribbon output as “memory.” We spoke in Fortran IV, and stored all of our programs on those pale yellow rolls of paper. Perish the thought we might actually lose it. Or the dog eat our homework.

Things did get better after that, of course, and today we are so connected that the world hardly even resembles what I knew 37 years ago. Despite how crude this all sounds today, though, my peers and I were on the bleeding edge of technology. And it whetted my appetite for more. Much more. It helped shape who I am today. Gadget guru. Purveyor of all things cool. OK, sucker for all things geeky and expensive.

It is fun to look over my shoulder to see just how far I (and we) have come. Heck, we had just gotten a color TV about that time. We were rockin’. It’s also reassuring to read that most people think that technology has made our lives better.

Although I will admit to many instances of serious questioning. Soul searching. Cursing.

Ever since I started teaching online in 1997, people have asked me what I think about it. My standard response: “The good news is that I get to take it with me. The bad news is that I get to take it with me.”

Fast forward to 2011 and suddenly the majority of us are on 24/7 call, seldom more than a text or Facebook Message away. And when we aren’t, people start to get worried. I should know. People have become so accustomed to my being wired (in a wireless kind of way, of course), that anything other is cause for alarm. Just the other day my colleague tried to reach me for over an hour. I had silenced my phone and had not turned it back on. Worse yet, I did not have the phone in my pocket. It was not against my body, meaning I was, for all intents and purposes, off the grid. Completely. “Dude. You went cell phone MIA. Everything OK?”

I took this as a sincere act of friendship. In a 21C kind of way, of course. (Thank you for caring, my friend.)

Still, I do indeed wonder about all this technology. In many regards, it has made our lives much better. It has changed our homes, our workspace, everything we do. Today, tablets like the iPad are allowing us to put computers in places we never could have put a PC. Like on the fridge or hanging beneath the kitchen cabinet.

While we have not yet reached the point of the paperless office (some studies show us actually using more paper than before, thanks to the ubiquity of printers), none can argue that the way we do our jobs today is light years removed from a couple of generations ago. Yeah, in just a few decades. And the improvements I have seen during my professional career (23 years), is nothing short of amazing. What was once the forefront of computing power is now just a box of stone tools beside today’s workhorses.

Interestingly, though, while we say it has improved our lives, we’re not necessarily always happy about it all. One of the funniest skits on this paradox was performed by comedian Louis CK. Maybe all the advancements have made us techno-entitlement freaks. I know I am guilty. I curse my iPhone’s autocorrect for typographical blunders that would never have occurred back in the day of F2F communications. If I slip off the 3G grid into Edge, I become impatient when my Facebook posts hang and emails take forever to send (from my handy wireless computer phone, remember). And don’t get me started when there’s a little snow on my satellite dish and I have to venture out in the middle of a snowstorm with a long-handled broom. So I can receive television signals from space.

Yeah, maybe I shouldn’t complain. After all, it’s the weekend. I am taking advantage of every guy’s prerogative to spend a couple of days in low self-monitoring mode (read: I have not shaved since Friday morning). I’m working at home using Clear Wimax, listening to the Cowboys game from across the room via satellite TV, sending text messages, and downloading a book to my iPad.

Sure beats 1974. “Cradle modem? Are you freaking crazy? How did you guys live?” At least I’ll have stories for the grandkids.

Dr “Better? You Bet” Gerlich


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