Control Your Technology

When I was a kid, there were no cell phones. I grew up in the Rocky Mountains, 20 miles from Estes Park where most of my friends lived and where I went to school. A bus picked me up at 7am and dropped me back home at 4:30pm. When I joined a club or team and needed to get to school early, late, or on weekends, transportation became a challenge because nobody’s parents wanted to make that 40-mile round trip more than once a day.

So, we figured it out. My nearby friends and I formed carpool groups, checked our various schedules, and planned with our parents to come up with something like this: “Mom, on Saturday I need to be at the school at 9am for the bus ride down to a tournament in Denver. Shawn is also going to the tournament. If his mother can bring us home when we get back to the school at 7pm, would you be able to drive both of us up that morning?”

Mom would say yes, I’d pass the word to Shawn who’d tell his mom and we’d be set. We’d leave at the time we planned on Saturday, catch the bus, come home on the scheduled bus, and ride back to our area with Shawn’s mom. Done.

Now that cell phones have entered the scene and every kid has one, the situation has become a complete circus. I saw this firsthand on my recent visit home for the holidays. Cell phones, and many innovations, were initially marketed as time savers. They were going to increase our productivity because we’d be able to get some of our work done on the fly. What a crock that turned out to be. Instead, what used to be an efficient approach to scheduling has turned into a frenzied, too-fluid ordeal that leaves everybody exhausted and angry.

Specific to the kids living 20 miles outside of Estes Park, here’s what the scene has devolved into:

I mention offhand to my mom that there might be a tournament on Saturday, not sure yet and not sure who’s going. I tell her I’ll let her know more as we get closer. On Friday night, I exchange 12 phone calls with other kids in the area seeing who’s going. Each of them changes their mind two or three times, necessitating another round of phone calls to update the plan of who’s going where. Finally, we have our list and I tell my mother late at night what must happen tomorrow morning, there’s no other way, everybody else’s mom is too busy.

Mom grudgingly agrees, and the friends are driven up to Estes Park to catch the school bus at 9am. Nobody has yet thought about the return trip because we’ll “plan it as we go.” Sometime in the afternoon, it occurs to me at the tournament that the tournament will end and that we’ll all be back on the bus heading to Estes Park again. I call my mom to tell her that we need a ride at 7pm when we get back to the school. She says she can’t do it because she’s shopping in Longmont and won’t be back in time.

Panic!

My friends start calling their moms and discover similar predicaments. One thought his dad would be in Estes that evening anyway, but it turns out he needed car maintenance and is stuck in Boulder. I call my mom to tell her that. I try to make it her problem, and I say things like it would be really nice if she could just help me out this one time even though I’ve used that line several times per week for as long as I can remember. “Just this one time” somehow has become the norm.

We hang up and the other kids make another round of calls to their people, to no avail. Then, I have a brilliant idea. What if somebody could get us to Lyons, which is on the way home to our area from Longmont, and then mom could meet us there and take us all home then? Great! My friends and I start calling our address books to find somebody’s adult relative to give us a lift to Lyons, forgetting the free bus ride to Estes entirely. Somebody finally finds an uncle who can barely fit it into his schedule that evening to drive us to Lyons. We all call our parents to assure them that everything is fine, and I call my mom to tell her the new plan. She says she’ll be in Lyons an hour earlier than our ride will get us there.

“Can’t you just wait?” I ask her. In the silence I add, “Just this one time?”

She says no. I can’t believe what a crummy family I’m from, I tell her that, and hang up hard. I tell all my friends that my mean mother won’t wait around one stinking hour to help us get home. All of us shaking our heads, we begin another round of calls to see if anybody else’s parents are coming through Lyons around the time we’ll be there. No luck. We’re all from crummy families.

I call my mom again and ask, if we can get our ride to show up 30 minutes earlier would she be willing to wait that long? She says she’s not happy, but she’ll do it just this one time. I start to thank her but then realize how weak that would look in front of my cool friends, so I just say “good” and hang up.

I tell my friends the good news, but the friend whose uncle is driving us says he’s not sure we’ll be able to get there 30 minutes earlier. He makes a quick call and finds out that his uncle can either get us there 90 minutes earlier or at the original later time, but nothing in between. “He’s such a jerk,” my friend tells all of us with his hand over the phone while we’re thinking. We go with the earlier time even though it means the uncle will have to take us from the tournament in just 15 minutes. We’ll miss the last part. Oh well. Emergencies happen.

Another round of phone calls follows in which I tell my mom she won’t have to wait after all, then we’re picked up and taken to Lyons by the jerk uncle and wait around complaining about how we had to miss the rest of the tournament because of the crappy place we’re from. My mom shows up and takes us up the mountain, everybody in a bad mood and tired from the logistical confusion.

This is what the “convenience” of cell phones has wreaked. Lest you think it’s this way only with kids, recall how many times your lunch dates or business meetings have been rescheduled on the fly or supplied with updates from somebody at the airport, in the car, or walking down the hall. The ability to call anybody at any time has removed from people’s minds any responsibility to plan well. Thus, time savings that could have come about by the smart use of cell phones has been lost in the muddle of phone calls and updates that passes for scheduling these days.

It doesn’t end there.

We’ve innovated our way to using advanced communications systems on the internet, too. We can network more efficiently, show the world pictures of our grocery shopping trip, and share our favorite top-ten list of obscene brand names with hundreds of online friends we’ve never met.

Right about here, somebody’s bound to say how they found a job offer online, or sold their car or met their husband or discovered a new restaurant. That, they’ll claim, is justification for all the great new technology eating up hours of everybody’s day.

What they miss is that long before any of it, we were finding jobs, selling cars, meeting spouses, and discovering new restaurants. Gosh, how did we ever do it before we could just turn on the computer?

I participate in newfangled technology and make my living with some of it. I don’t oppose technology that improves lives. What I oppose is the willingness of people to accept worse and worse living conditions on the false premise that the new gadgets causing them are automatically more efficient and innovative. The problem is not the technology, it’s the stupidity of human nature that takes it directly to its worst possible usage. Cell phones are great for emergencies and working while on the go. They’re a nightmare for people whose already stretched attention spans see them as an excuse to forgo basic planning.

In another example, consider the availability of information on the internet. It should be a good thing, right? We can check anything anytime to know dates, historical significance, how to accomplish tasks, and so on. All that’s true and possible, but people aren’t spending hours online everyday on anything productive like that.

They’re sharing photos of the brownies they baked and then waiting for a friend at a different computer to look at the photos and type “Yum, yum!” into a comment so they can gleefully type “You know it!” in reply. That’s progress?

They hear something about the Kennedy assassination and read the opening paragraph of its Wikipedia entry and check off in their minds that they “researched” it. That’s knowledge?

They follow 1,287 Twitter tweeters intending to pick up useful tidbits for their career, and instead sit mesmerized in front of a real-time firehose of links to pictures of vegetables that most resemble rock stars and a video of a guy trying to jump a fire hydrant on his skateboard with one leg tethered to his neck and his eyelids pinned open with toothpicks. That’s useful?

The way most people use technology is making their — and our — lives worse. Long periods of time spent reading books that fully explored a subject have given way to a miseducation of soundbites, bumper stickers, and cheap laughs. It can also be bad for business, as a different experience on that same holiday trip to Colorado showed me.

I was looking for an accountant to prepare taxes for Red Frog Coffee, the shop I co-own in Longmont with my sister, Emily. I turned to the Internet in all its glory: the professional networks we’ve all joined, the personal networks we’ve all been sucked into, the ad sites we all know, the question sites we’re all told will yield every answer, and the endless collection of sites that rate everything known to man. They turned up nothing more than what I would have found more quickly in the past using the Yellow Pages, born 1883.

So, I began talking with local people I respect to solicit their ideas for good accountants in the Longmont area. Using a concept as old as tribes, they asked their friends who asked their friends and what came back to me within a couple of days was a tidy list of five names for me to contact. Notice that during the time people were checking around, I was free to tend to other tasks instead of pulling my hair out trying one internet service after another to track down a decent accountant.

I called the list of accountants, and was struck by the kind nature of one in particular. On the first phone call, he asked about our shop’s history, why we started it, the business structure we chose, where we’d like to go, and other inquiries that made me feel that he cared about us. He did not discuss his price until I asked, nor did he explain how busy tax season would be for his firm, nor did he ask me three times if I’d hold for a moment when a cell phone rang out in the background. Other accountants did those things. I told him that I was checking around and would get back to him in a few days.

Later that day, he came to the shop. He introduced himself and said he wanted to see the place he’d been discussing with me on the phone. He bought a drink. The next day, a different member of his firm came by the shop to say she’d heard about us from her colleague and wanted to see our shop for herself. She bought a drink. Excellent showing so far.

I narrowed the list down to that firm and one other in town. I set meetings for the following Monday, the kind accountant at 9am and another at 11am. The one at 11 said he was awfully busy and it would help if we came to his office instead of him coming to the shop. I said that wasn’t possible because the shop is too busy all the time and my sister can’t get away for meetings. He agreed to meet at our shop at 11am.

The kind accountant showed up 30 minutes early, ordered coffee, and sat at a table with a printout of our shop’s story from our website, underlined and highlighted in areas. Emily and I had a great meeting with him in which he said he was impressed by parts of our shop’s story, as indicated on the printout, and was eager to develop a long-term relationship between his firm and our shop. He’d helped start his firm 45 years ago, so he knew the meaning of long-term relationships.

After that meeting, we waited for the other accountant to show up at 11am. He wasn’t there early, wasn’t there on time, and finally the phone rang 15 minutes past time. “Jason, I thought you were coming to my office today at 11,” he said. I told him no, he was coming to us, and he offered to hustle over. I told him not to bother, we’d already made our decision, in part because we’d never work with somebody who doesn’t show up on time to meetings.

Emily and I hired the kind accountant, and on his first official visit to our shop I told him that his personal touch and genuine interest is what won us over.

“I’m happy to hear that,” he said, “and I’ll pass it along to some of our younger associates who don’t quite get it. I told them that I talked a long while with you and visited your shop a couple of times and thought I might just have found a new client. One of them said, ‘What a cool way to make it happen.’ I told him there was nothing cool about it, nothing gimmicky. It used to be the way business was done, period.”

Then, he told me one of the best business stories I’ve heard in a long time and which I’m happy to share with you here.

He said, “When I helped start the firm 45 years ago, I was the whippersnapper in the office and most of my founding partners were older than I with a lot more experience. After we started doing well, I rewarded myself with a new suit. I walked proudly into the office the next Monday morning. One of the older partners said, ‘Hey, nice suit. Where’d you get it?’ I told him the name of a shop near my home. The partner glared at me and said, ‘Next time, buy it at our suit shop client.’ I felt all eyes in the office on me, and couldn’t wait to get out of that suit.

“About six months later, it was time for another suit. You can be darned sure I bought it at our client. I walked proudly into the office on Monday, more proud of where I’d bought the suit than of the suit itself. The same partner said, ‘Hey, nice suit. Where’d you get it?’ I opened the jacket and showed our client’s label. ‘Great. What’d you pay for it?’ I told him I got it on sale for 40 percent off. He glared at me and said, ‘Next time, pay full price to our client.’

“That’s how I learned the business. We only succeed when our clients succeed, and those lessons have stuck with me. How those ideas got lost in the technology shuffle I’ll never know.”

Neither will I, but something has definitely been lost and more is disappearing each year. The ability to call anybody anywhere is not necessarily communication. A world wide cloud of disjointed information is not necessarily wisdom. A pile of time-saving innovations ringing and chirping and vying for our attention is not necessarily efficient.

Control your technology. Don’t let it control you.

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11 Comments

  1. Andrew Yeh
    Posted January 17, 2011 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    In fairness to “children” (adults can overuse technology as well so children is applied generally), most technology was made so that you would rely on it. The purpose of making technology easy to use is to make you rely on it more and rely on alternatives and DIY projects less. The reason for making technology cheaper is so that more people use it more. For example, Twitter was not designed to make you use it as a tool. It was designed so that you would use it as a social network and use it often. Cell phones were designed so that you would rely on them not so that you would use them as a last resort when plans failed. Calculators were designed to be as fast as they are to make you rely on them for math (I know people who can’t multiply without a calculator), not so that you could use them for only advanced math; this sells more calculators.

    Children are more impressionable than adults and so it is easier for companies to get children to use and rely on technology. Its also why it is easier for children to get addicted to activities and practices (like alcohol and drugs).

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