Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Look Both Ways

Sharon Wildwind

In 1983, all my friends were ga-ga over personal computers.

Keep in mind that I come from a tribe of more-than-a-little-geeky, Star-Trek-watching, science-fiction-reading fen. Fen is, of course, the plural for fan. I took physics in high school, and double chemistry. I could—at a time so far in the past that it is an infinitesimal memory point—use a slide rule.

I said to myself, “I have to get a computer, or I’m going to be left behind.” What I actually said, accompanied by what Andrew M. Greeley’s Bishop Blackie calls, “a west Ireland sigh,” was that I was so far behind the computer curve I’d probably never catch up.

In reality, I only thought I was so far behind.

In 1983, an operating system called DOS (developed by a couple of IBM whiz kids named Paul Allen and Bill Gates) was barely on the market. Most computers were still being programmed in BASIC, FORTRAN, COBAL, and Pascal.

Atari games were three years old. In 1982, Disney Studios had released a movie, Tron, where some of the drawing and special effects was actually done on a computer! Word Perfect was one-year old. Apple had sold a remarkable $1 billion dollars worth of personal computers, and ARPANET had just standardized TCP/IP. If that last one isn’t exactly crystal clear, think of it as the world had just discovered it was pregnant with the Internet.

In any case, I bought a second-hand, cassette-tape-fed Radio Shack computer and fell down the rabbit hole into computer land. The point being, I could buy a computer. It wasn’t just a money thing, but that computer—as primitive as it was—was available to me in a small Canadian town far away from other small towns.

Things have changed.

Today, If I wanted to buy a Kindle, I couldn’t do it. I live in the wrong country. Even if someone I knew in the United States bought one for me, I couldn’t download a lot of material, which is available in the states. Vendors have the ability to backtrack an ISP address and, if that address tracks to outside of the U.S., no sale. Same thing with the iPhone a couple of years back. It took a while to get here, and when it did the service contract was severely limited and on and on. Same thing with sites that offer downloads of old television series, but only if you live in certain countries. I’ve used friends in the states as shipping addresses because many on-line vendors have a ship-to-U. S.-addresses-only policy.

The PEW Internet & American Life Project tracks a lot of Internet stats. According to their May 2008 survey, 73% of Americans surveyed, 18 and older, use the Internet. This goes to 90% in the age group 18 to 29 and drops to 35% for people over 65. If you’re white or English-speaking Hispanic, you’re more likely to be using the Internet than if you are black. If you live in the city or suburbs, you have more of a chance than if you have a rural address. If your household makes over $75,000 a year, the odds are almost double that you would use the Internet than if that income were less than $30,000. The more education you have, the more you use the Internet.

I saw quoted last year in a discussion about technology that last year—2008—was the tipping year for DSL access. For the first time, more than 50% of U.S. computer users were able to have access to cable service rather than use dial-up modems. It wasn’t that more people don’t want to use cable, it was that the cost is prohibitive to bring cable to many rural addresses and small towns.

I know elderly people who can no longer look up phone numbers. They have trouble making ten-digit local calls. They can not contend with the “If you are calling about a bill, press 1,” ad infinitum lists of push-this-button automated services. They can no longer check their bank or credit card balances, inquire about their tax return, order from a catalogue, or in some cases, reach the correct a health care provider at a large hospital. They are getting tired of being told, “No, I’m sorry we don’t have anyone here who can give you that information, but everything you need to know is available on our web site.”

So the question isn’t is technology here to stay, but who is going to control access? Who gets to decide that if a person lives in a certain place they can or can’t get the latest device and the hook-ups to use it? And, what do we do about all of those people who don’t want to or can’t go electronic? What are some decent, humane ways of providing those people with basic customer services? Or is that even our responsibility as a society? Should we simply adopt an attitude of join the technological revolution or be ignored?

We all need to spend some time thinking about what life is like for the less technologically fortunate.


Quote for the week:

You should always know when you’re shifting gears in life. You should leave your era; it should never leave you.
~Leontyne Price, singer


Julia Buckley said...

Sharon, what excellent questions you have posed here. It's easy to get caught up in the tidal wave of technology and leave those who can't swim behind.

I have colleagues at work who are often reduced to tears by computers and what we're supposed to do with them. One of them tells me, "I'm too old for this."

I don't agree, but I think we've failed her somehow, not with access but with training.

And for those who don't have access, you are so right--we must equalize the situation.

Anonymous said...

When I was in high school, in North Jersey, the school decided to offer its first computer science class. The enrollment was a strange mix of nerds (that would be me) and future secretaries. Our hands-on experience was limited to a once-a-week excursion to the local university, where we would wait in line to key-punch our lame little programs, then wait some more to feed them through the refrigerator-size IBM whatever-it-was. I still have the cute little Fortran programming template.

Still, it was a major psychological jump to think that I could buy a real computer that would sit on my desk. Now we can't live without them.

I have to say that whenever I find a living person on the other end of the phone, when I call with an order or a complaint, if they are anything like civil and informed I'm tempted to send a thank-you card. Although even computer-generated programs are now trained to be polite. Weird world, isn't it?

Sandra Parshall said...

I'm quite capable of using a computer to go to a web site, but I'm annoyed that some companies have absolutely no person-to-person service any longer. Not every problem can be solved by clicking through a set of one-size-fits-all questions. My attitude isn't anti-technology -- I think technology is great, and I couldn't live without my computer. Rather, my attitude is pro-people. We are rapidly losing all human-to-human contact.

Recently I entered a local Giant supermarket and was stopped by a man at the door who was trying to get customers to take and try out hand-held scanners. The idea was that the customers would scan their own groceries as they put them in their baskets, so when they checked out, all they had to do was pay--by credit card at an automated checkout station. I was horrified, and I'm sure the retail clerks' union found such a proposed "advance" horrifying too, because the store wants to replace human beings with those little scanners. I refuse to use self-checkout stations at stores too, because if everybody started doing that, a lot of clerks would lose their jobs. I am not going to help put somebody out of work.

Elizabeth Zelvin said...

I was just telling my son and daughter-in-law today about the first time my son learned to do something I couldn't do myself. It was 1978, he was 8 years old, and he took his first computer course the same year but this came first: it was a little handheld "football game" in which tiny red dots of light represented the players, and I couldn't make head or tail of it. Today, he's a highly paid software product manager--and my 4 1/2 year old granddaughter can draw and save pictures--unsupervised!--on MS Paint. I can't do that either.

Anonymous said...

Oh, Lonnie, send me your grand-daughter. I can't master a paint program to save my life.

Yesterday, I programmed a TV remote for the first time in my life. Heavens only knows what channels my mother-in-law is going to get now, possible Mars.

Yeah, in a large part, we're the bridge for people like Julia's co-worker and Sandra's check-out clerks. We have to be sure we don't fail them.