Techo-Industrial progress is generally thought of as a growth process, a progression of steps towards a brighter future. But as I look back on my Computer-Whiz career, I can see that digital technology outgrew me. It outgrew me and thousands of others, men and women who had struggled through the early days of the digital office revolution.
In the 1970s and 1980s there were hundreds of new products and programs every month, eldritch code and cabling that went through an evolutionary maze from Pre-PC, room-sized standalones, to PCs using Basic, to PCs using dBase, to LAN-connected PCs, to PCs with Windows 2.0, to email, bulletin boards, and the dawn of the World Wide Web—and all these stages had commensurate enhancements in printer technology, analog-modems to cable, cabling, through its various incarnations of ports and plugs, to wireless, Faxes, scanners, laser-printers, mice, keyboards, and monitors, in-house programmer to off-the-shelf-software to Office Suites, Adobe graphics suites, ‘Meeting-minder/Contacts’ Sales suites, and bookkeeping programs galore.
I began as one of those ‘in-house guru’-types, doing everything computer—setting up the machinery, running the cable, hardware repairs, software programming, user-training, de-bugging, printer-paper schlepper, printer jam un-jammer, etc.
In the course of the next two decades, I would read badly-translated-Japanese users’ guides on modem installation, hard-drive installation, balancing the voltage on the CPU, 200-page tomes on how to set all the settings for all the users of a new LAN version, dictionaries of code-syntax, and a lot of other documentation that would never make the bestseller list (or in some cases even qualify as being written in English).
I sucked it all up in my brain and it was quite a suck—but I was pretty sharp back in the day. Twenty years—the computer industry from its first shoots, growing into the ‘monster with a billion tentacles’ we have today—I rode the wave and fully enjoyed being up on that big tech wave with relatively few peers.
Now, I’m in no shape to go back to a life of coding, so you needn’t think this is sour grapes, but the digital culture has outgrown all the many things I once knew or used. Anybody can use a computer now, hell, it’s not even a PC anymore, it’s just your phone mostly now. User-friendliness, once a big issue, has disappeared from the lexicon, owing to how completely it has been achieved. Even someone with a PhD in Computer Science, in 1989 (assuming no further education) would be as digitally-illiterate today as I am. Technology simply outgrew the need for our skills.
But we are not lonely in that category—millions of others are in this group with us—letter carriers, phone-jack installers, radio DJs, journalists, fighter pilots, astronauts, camera and movie film processors, electronics cable manufacturers. Now there’s talk of 3-D printing opening wide someday soon—there goes factory work—whatever hadn’t already been replaced by robots, that is. Fortunately, we have some breathing space in this area—it’ll be quite some time before 3-D printers will be cheaper than 3rd-world labor. I’d bet a guy with a fax machine business in 1990 probably thought it would last.
New jobs? Sure, new tech is bound to create some jobs—but not for hordes of employees. Most innovation these days is achieved through enhancements in software and the electronics—the small part of innovations that create new jobs usually create only one or two jobs, and very specialized ones, at that.
And so we see progress. Our technology is growing like a weed. It is outgrowing the need for hands and eyes. Soon the cars won’t let us drive ourselves—too risky. And virtual meetings take the place of many arduous junkets to far-off customers or suppliers. Wikipedia is, for virtually everybody, a better memory than the one we were born with—and if some of its data is false, just imagine how much data inside your own head is a bunch of BS and you can rest easy that it’s still a good trade.
Luckily, no one has a job remembering, so at least the economy is safe from Wiki—if you don’t count World Book or Encyclopedia Britannica—both of which no longer print paper-books, having migrated online years ago, so those printers were out, regardless of Wiki.
But I like work. Our cultures are always founded on work—our bodies need work to stay healthy, our minds need work to stay sharp. Mobs of farmers used to get plowing, sowing, reaping, milling, whatever. Craftspeople used to make stuff with their hands—that sounds like a nice way to go through life. But there’s no need any longer. Machines do the farming, factories make stuff in bunches—and all of it quicker and cheaper than people.
Without the need for those masses of workers, there’s still plenty for a person to do. Medicine, Computers, Law, Construction—jobs all over—for now. But that doesn’t mean those jobs are still going to be there in ten or twenty years. As technology grows, its growth accelerates—the more jobs it does for us, the faster it will be taking more jobs away. Even if our profligate consumerist lifestyle wasn’t killing the planet, our notion of ‘progress’ has our own erasure from the list of significant things built into itself. We are rushing towards our own uselessness. Onward!