Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Notes from the Digital Chasm

I have two friends.  I’ll call them Bert and Ernie.  

Bert is 72 (a Baby Boomer), lives on the East Coast, and is mostly retired after a successful career in consumer marketing, including running a business that made stuff (as opposed to, say, a business that manufactured zeros and ones).  Bert is technically savvy and aware, and usually has the latest i-Gizmo.

Ernie is in his early 40s (a Gen X), lives on the West Coast, and teaches at a private boys’ school.  He’s a runner, and a good one, not to mention being an enthusiastic and fearless early-adopter of technology.

In February, I wrote a post comparing tech giants of the twenty-first century (gathered at Trump Tower) to those of the nineteenth century (see here).  Needless to say, I was underwhelmed by the current crop, writing:
Online shopping vs. surgical anesthesia. Online search engine vs. cast-iron construction. Online social networking vs. the system of interchangeable parts. Online payments vs. the mechanical reaper and new forms of corporate organization.  Computer software and consumer electronics vs. vulcanized rubber. Computer technology vs. the first American steam locomotive.  Middleware vs. the telegraph.  Big Data vs. the rotary press. 
I wondered in the post if maybe historian Richard Hofstadter had been correct when he wrote, "Once great men created fortunes; today a great system creates fortunate men."

That’s when Ernie dropped me a note from Oakland.  It was clear I wasn’t looking closely enough at what our modern industrial giants had wrought.   Here’s what he wrote:


I normally run-commute from home in Oakland to school in San Francisco using BART.  Along with teaching, I have a fundraiser and classes to plan. My knee hurts, so I'm worried about running this week. My family has one car and my wife works full time and needs it that day.  So here's what I did: 
I graded papers online (written online) on my tablet as I rode BART to the city. Since I couldn't run, I downloaded the app "Scoot" which instantaneously unlocks the closest nearby electric scooter which allows me to take a one-way trip to school from the downtown SF BART station for $3. I park right next to school and walk away from the scooter. 
At school, students were preparing to talk to kids in Uganda over video about a book called "I am Malala” which about a girl in the Middle East. They can read it digitally, and for the kids who have trouble reading, I have an app that reads it to them as they follow along. They are also working on their grammar online. NoRedInk.com instantly gives them differentiated feedback as they teach themselves the grammar on their website. I also know instantly the exact kid who is struggling, so I go right over to the student and help them out immediately. Other apps correct their writing for them in terms of vocabulary, organization, and grammar online. Each kid knows exactly how they are doing in my class and what they haven't turned in, because they check their grade and assignments online in real-time. 
The fundraiser is run by the students who share online docs to keep track of the budget, expenses, instructions, and games. The also buy the prizes on Amazon.com, which show up in two days, as does all the food. The kids present the charity getting the funds using online slides on a digital projector to the rest of the school. Few questions are asked about what to do, since everyone in the community has access to the document that detail the fundraiser's schedule.
The postman back in Oakland rings my doorbell while I'm at school. I know it's the postman because when he rings my Ring.com doorbell, my phone rings and I see him on my phone that second and can talk with him from San Francisco to tell him to drop the package over the back gate. 
A kid tells me one day he bit his tongue badly after school, but it's okay, because he researched how to take care of it on his iPhone and figured it out (mouthwash and then salt water). 
Here's a small one for sale in Alameda, Ernie!
Since it's raining, I'll take an Uber home, even though my knee is feeling better. As I ride, I'm following Trump's latest disaster, and let my 500 online friends know by posting an article about it in 2 seconds. I also take a quick look at my family's overall net worth on Mint (it adds up all my assets-house, investments, etc.) and look at Redfin to see what's available for houses to buy in Alameda. Not much. The Uber driver knows to route around traffic because he has real time traffic data. There's a lot of traffic, because the Bay Area tech economy is booming and many people are here. Every now and then, an electric car goes by. I know that the BART trains are a little delayed because I got an email about it. 
When I get home, I say, " Alexa, turn on all lights." I also ask it to read me the news, set a timer, and tell me the weather. My crockpot, which I turned on from school at noon with the Wemo app, has my chili smelling delicious and all ready to eat.  
All true and accessible to anyone. I like that even a low-salary teacher like me has access to this technology. I wonder, though, with all this technology to make my life easier, why it all still doesn't feel that easy. It just feels like I'm doing 25% more than I used to.
My Friend Bert

A couple of months later, I sent Bert (a music aficionado) an article saying the developers behind the MP3 file format had terminated their licensing program, the death of a once ubiquitous technology.  In a reflective mood, Bert wrote me the following—which I couldn’t help but compare to the note Ernie had written me earlier:

It all began when my wire recorder became obsolete.   (I was too young to have used those wax cylinders for dictation.)  Then my slide rule.  Then my mercury thermometers.  My tube radio, stereo, and TV.  My trusty typewriter (Olympia), which got me through school.  My little portable dictation machine (after they took away my secretary who knew shorthand).  78’s.  45’s.  LP’s.  Reel-to-reel tapes.  Eight tracks.  Cassettes.  CD’s.  Film in cameras (Kodak or Fuji) which required manual winding.  Mechanical wind-up watches, clocks, TV remotes wired to the set.  AOL.  CompuServe.  MySpace.  Lotus 1-2-3.  Word Perfect.  Modems.  Civility?  Proper dress?  Respect for women?  Grammar?  
I’ll stop before I begin to cry.
I guess that an awful lot has changed in my 72 years.  But I still use my fountain pens. 
I am about midway in age between Bert and Ernie (call me Elmo).  

I remember life before the Internet. 

I remember getting on the Internet for an hour in the evening just to play a game or be entertained. 

Then I remember being on the Internet all day and getting off for an hour just to preserve my sanity. 

And now, I’m not sure I make any distinction between on-line and off-line.  I don’t feel the need to “digitally detox” during vacations any more than I feel the need to turn off my refrigerator.  I sleep with my iPad on the bedside table but, I’m loath to admit, sometimes I ignore it.

I am nostalgic about Bert’s world.  I am enthusiastic about Ernie’s world.  But most of all, I am quickly forgetting how wide and deep the digital chasm looked on the way across.

(P.S.--Thanks to my friends for letting me reprint their emails!)