Saturday, March 5, 2011

Technology, a Lesson in Humanity #samplesunday

My past and technology’s history intertwine. Before I understood the ramifications of my decision I’d jumped into the technology field as a wet-behind-the-ears software engineer. Exciting days…and nights. The early adopters and creators like me found it exhilarating, exhausting, and addicting. Perfect for the obsession-friendly set. With a never-ending promise of new, it beckoned us to follow. And it delivered on its promise, transforming our idea of stability into one of never ending transition. Thanks to technology, change is no longer that occasional bump in the road of life. Change is life.

A bit of history, if I may: I’ve watched the kings come and go. I’ve not only watched, I’ve bowed before their altars and lived in their inner courts. When I entered the field, the mainframes of IBM, Burroughs, Honeywell ruled the kingdom. Rooms packed with their mammoth circuitry, tape drives, and printers flaunted their permanent place in our society and in our pocketbooks. Like many emperors, they brought new laws and new ways of thinking about things. And like many rulers, they didn’t ask what we thought about it. They dared you to stand in their way, the generals making a Sherman-like march through the Confederate state of the way-we-used-to-do-it. The glory, the magnificence, the power! All hail to International Business Machines, may they reign forever.

One day this sort of mousey, nerdy, introverted college dropout somehow managed to parlay his little toy operating system into IBM’s next step in dominance, the personal computer. The monolith knew how to manipulate the geeks. They may be smart, even genius, but they weren’t business people. And this Bill Gates would be no exception. They would use him, siphon off what they wanted, and then burn the rest. Besides, a personal computer?!?!?!? Hahahahaha. What a huge, friggin’ waste of time! We make real computers for real business. No one wants a computer in their home! Their unspoken motto echoed in the techno valleys, “Resistance is futile; you will be assimilated.”

Surprise! Before you could say “the emperor has no clothes”, Microsoft banished the old guard while the world announced its undying allegiance to the new and sexier one. As did I. After years of living off IBM’s success, I dumped them like an old cell phone. Trading in my blue 3-piece suit on a fun, sporty red t-shirt, I switched so quickly I think it made my own head spin. For those of you who haven’t lived through the changes or haven’t been integrally connected to them, I hope you appreciate the enormity of what Microsoft introduced to the world. I know there are plenty of Redmond haters and I feel some of their pain. But regardless of who actually gets credit for creating the first GUI interface – Xerox, Apple, Microsoft, or some teenager in a basement who mysteriously died shortly thereafter – Microsoft put Windows in front of people and boldly led the way into a new paradigm in computing.

And they put a human face on it. Quickly, tell me who ran IBM during the 70s, 80s, 90s, 00s? Anyone? Now tell me who ran Microsoft? William Henry Gates III showed us that someone who couldn’t comb his hair need not be ashamed because he could rule the entire world. He’s come a long way, especially after he married and his wife took responsibility for his personal appearance, but back in the day he impressed no one and cared nothing at all about that. I’m speaking as someone who’s been in the same room with him, only a few yards away. No, we’re not buddies, although I’m guessing he’s a quite interesting pal to hang around with. Almost overnight he challenged and defeated the century’s old, time-tested, business maxim that one must look good to be taken seriously. Do you understand the ramifications of what I’m saying? Maybe he didn’t intend to, but he made computing personal and approachable.

Over the years I’ve attended many technology conferences. When I showed up at my first Microsoft Tech-Ed conference I felt a bit giddy. The technology rated a 10 on the fun meter for a technologist like me, but I will never forget sitting down in my first meeting. I watched this twenty-something guy with a pony tail, tat, earrings, t-shirt, jeans, and sandals amble up to the stage. In a surfer dude style he began talking about the guts of the technology like only a developer could. I wanted to run up and kiss him. For the first time in my career I felt a part of something…more than technology, part of a team of like-minded people.

Well, you know the rest of the story. The company from Redmond turned into a huge success, and then it grew to the point where it could no longer adapt, at least not quickly. Bill, the very human techno geek, stepped down; Steve, the business-like salesman, stepped up. They quickly reached the point where they overestimated their corporate place in the world and underestimated the hunger and passion of their competitors, and the technology addicted masses. In their lethargy they slid into the IBM trap of arrogance, spouting “Resistance is futile; you will be assimilated.” Meanwhile Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple, and myriads of open source types busted their butts, working night and day, to perfect their niche technology in the world and then expand it to more mainstream concerns. However, it is important to understand that unlike IBM’s day, these large companies are much more interdependent - they need each other, and the rest of us appreciate the competition that keeps them at least somewhat honest. Quick aside: I happen to believe Microsoft may very well turn the corner and find its place in the new land of Social; I very much like my new Windows smartphone.

Sorry for the longish post, almost 50 tweets worth, but there’s a point that needs to be made. Technology is a transitory enabler – the codependent of all codependents. It will never tell you or me to stop or slow down or think twice about our addictive behavior. It embraces and encourages us, whispering sweet nothings in our ear – consume, consume, consume. It makes grand promises yet it may not be around tomorrow to fulfill any of them. As an author I do appreciate how technology assists me in my journey of writing, publishing, connecting with readers and writers, promoting, etc. But I must remind myself that it is a tool, nothing more. It can’t love me or correct me (well, spell checker maybe). It doesn’t hug or kiss me. It has no facility to create art, music, or stories in and of itself. It mimics but does not invent. Technology is not human…in spite of our best efforts to humanize it. It makes a pathetic king and an even more pathetic god. And it can’t measure up to to the lousiest of friends who at least cares for us a little.

It can teach us valuable lessons though. If we take a moment to sit in technology’s classroom and listen to its stories we can learn a great deal about humanity, such as: we like to be entertained; we enjoy being in control; we’re addicted to new; we learn technology quickly but not necessarily the ramifications of it. But the most important subject on which it educates us? What it can’t do and why we must turn to one another. In a way it calls out to us, reminding us that all of its glorious history of silicon efficiencies and entertainment-friendly facilities cannot compare to a single interaction with the stranger next to us…much less our friends and loved ones.

Class dismissed. Don’t forget your homework.


Kristie Leigh Maguire said...

Very good, Mark! I remember trying to learn Windows when it first came to the job I was on at the time. I was using Word Perfect before that and thought I would hate Windows. I quickly found out I didn't hate it at all.

Hooray to technology! It has allowed me to become the author I am today. :)


Mark Adair said...

Thanks for the comment, Kristie. Ah, Word Perfect - the best of times; the worst of times. Hard to imagine where we would be without technology, isnt' it.

(for those of you who don't know, Kristie is a wonderful author and the proprietor of The Spinning Wheel Amazon discussion board, definitely worth checking out)

BooksAndPals said...

Excellent post, Mark. As a technologist who has been around almost as long as you - my first decent job was on one of those Burroughs machines you talk about - I think you got it right.

Mark Adair said...

Thanks for the kind words. Ah Burroughs, I wonder where all those machines are now...

Thea Atkinson said...


Ah the days of 'before Windows' I remember it well. C:>DOS run. grin

I really enjoyed this because it took me back, but also because this was a killer post in terms of writing. wow. great analogy of king and court. lifted my lid this morning.

Mark Adair said...

Hi Thea! A real lid lifter, eh? :) I'm with you, C:> does bring back memories...not all good. Thanks for commenting and thanks for the kind words. Happy Friday to you!

Elisabeth Hirsch said...

I LOVE the way you write. It is so fun to read ;)

I'm following from Book Blogs.

Kate Evangelista said...

I'd have to say that I never thought about it that way. Some days, I like technology, while on others, I feel they are the bane of our existence.

Mark Adair said...

Hi Kate. Yeah, a love-hate thing with technology might be the product of our conscience screaming "get a life!"...maybe. Hey, I like your webiste - good stuff. :)

Mark Adair said...

Thanks for dropping by Elisabeth and thanks for the kind words! I enjoy your blog - very funny stuff. Cheers!

Richard Daybell said...

Oh to hear those loving words again: "Do not fold, spindle or mutilate." Great piece. I'll be back for more.