A Brave New World?

The Jetson family (clockwise from upper left) ...

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Growing up in the 1970s, I was exposed to visions of the “future” from a young age. From staples such as Star Trek and Star Wars to the World of Tomorrow and Futureland, with real-world events such as moon landings and Voyager and the Space Shuttle, I was told that my adulthood would be filled with perfectly imaginable futuristic technology.

It was also implied, if not stated outright, that society would experience equivalent proportional growth along with the technology.

It was a fair assumption. Western technology had been progressing geometrically over the prior 150 years. Man had built Interstates, trans-oceanic airliners and finally sent people to (and brought them home from) the Moon.

While The Jetsons plied us with images of taking our dogs for walks above the clouds on handy conveyor belts, we imagined flying our puttering car high above the world to vast cities, where we would fold our car into a briefcase and hop into the nearest hydraulic tube. Jet packs would be for simpler jaunts, while Rosie the robot would pack our family’s supplies for a two-week trip to Jupiter in a suitcase folded down into a wallet.

Perhaps we still would have to go to our desk at Spacely Sprockets, but even then work was simply the matter of pushing a button. At least until all the automation went horribly wrong.

I still remember one of the reading comprehension stories that I saw several times during different standardized tests. It was a future where “school” was a computer and a kid, looking how learning might be different in the future. I can’t recall many of the details, other than that it was a brother and sister’s typical day at “school”, putting their handwritten homework papers into the computer’s slot. Their homework had been about how school was in the “old days”, back when there were classrooms kids had to travel to, with other kids.

And of course, all anybody had to do to see what the future would be like would watch Star Trek, where racism, sexism, greed, crime and need were all removed from the human equation. People could work any job they wanted, and be provided with all they needed.

All of these dreams, and many many more, saw technology and human society walking forward, smiling, hand in hand. The future was going to be a beautiful place indeed, if the entertainment industry were any indication.

I have no idea why they may have thought that.

Actually, I am sure that society will find some way to accommodate all of this new technology, and that it will just take some more time. It’s just particularly frustrating to me, who has always been at the front of the technology curve, that I still can’t enjoy many of the fruits that these advances have brought.

Sure, when I drive into work each day, my magic little box called a GPS shows me the best route into work, with a large green arrow accentuating every turn as the streets pass by as if in real time. I have every song I own available to me digitally to blast from the speakers as I fly down the road, and my beautiful wife can call me anytime, anywhere to ask me to pick up a gallon of milk.

Should I need to find the nearest store (or gas station or bank or movie theater) that information is readily available to me through either my phone or my GPS. I can find a pizza place, order the food, and play computer games all in my car while I wait for the pizza to be ready. If I am so distracted by all this fun that I get into an accident, I can take pictures of the scene, call my insurance agent, and send an email to work telling them I’ll be late – all in a matter of minutes.

While at work, there is little paper mail, there is no carbon paper, there are no typewriters and white-out. I can fold up my little laptop computer, stick it in my bag, and have access to almost every single item I would have had at the office. And if paper is the only way to go, I don’t have to wrestle with a mimeo machine, find a stamp and envelope, and wait days for my item to arrive at its destination – it can arrive in a matter of seconds, using any of dozens of means to transmit a paper document to another person.

But despite all of these luxuries, I still am going in to work. Sure, many places allow folks to telecommute, and many job types are actually facilitated by this arrangement. (For the record, I get much more work done telecommuting than sitting in a noisy, distractive office.) So why is it such news when organizations allow their workers to do their jobs – usually saving that organization a lot of money in the process.

Why is Corporate America (not to mention Government America) so tied to the old ways of doing things?

I don’t have the answers – I’m not altogether sure why I even started this rant.

Oh yeah.

I read these articles about how the working world was changing. One on how Middle Class jobs are increasingly endangered, all while employers are now looking for “Mindset over Skill”.  Then I saw my bookmarks for two more articles I wanted to discuss: how one company made news by going to a name your own vacation schedule concept, while another made news by paying aspiring young technologists not to go to college.

I wanted to address all these things, and have intended to for the past couple of weeks.

I wanted to tell you how I felt about the fact that the Middle Class is disappearing in America, all while the richest fraction of the population is actually getting much richer. I wanted to go into another Style vs Substance discussion, about how “Mindset over Skill” might not be the best approach for businesses to take when looking for new talent. I had hoped to weigh the dangers of a name-your-own-vacation-schedule against the obvious benefits, perhaps even finding some statistical data to support one conclusion or the other. And I really was excited to address the issue of giving talented young people some seed money instead of foisting them all off into academia first, allowing their ideas to grow unfettered by a world of naysayers and conformity.

I wanted to write about all of these things, but frankly, I’m tired. I’m tired of having to come into an office every day, dealing with people and distractions and oversight. I’m tired of commuting long distances, only to get home to kids bursting with energy, wanting immediate and complete attention. I’m tired of having to wake up by alarm, watching the clock, and being productive because I am “in the office”.

I know I’ve only been at this gig for a couple of weeks, but despite the two-year respite I’ve been facing this issue for a long time. Ever since I was a little kid, I wished I could attend work or school over a computer, safe and secure in my own home. I dreamed of an environment where I could be free of distractions, safe from humiliation, allowed to do what I needed to do.

I knew at the time that I was supposed to think that the computerized learning would be inferior – after all, while they did have gym class, recess, tests, and everything else I experienced, they had to do it alone (or with their sibling). It was lonely for those kids, interacting only with machines and virtual images of other people. But I never saw it that way.

I saw it as a beautiful serene way to accomplish one’s tasks, to live one’s life.

It’s a shame e-learning was not available to me as a kid – I might have done much better in school, gone much further in life had those options been available to me. But alas, that was not to be.

It’s still not too late for me to enjoy some of the perks of the 21st century, such as online schooling and virtual friendships (thank God for Facebook!), all while being stuck in the same office building, day after day, that people have been trudging to for a century now. I still have my iPad to play with over lunchtime, holding enough music, e-books, games and tools to keep me busy for months on end. And I still have that GPS in my car, leading me home through even the most rugged of detours.

But the little kid inside of me is waiting for more.

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3 Responses to “A Brave New World?”
  1. Jason Newman says:

    I hear you, I’d love a world where I can work, learn, or even interact w/people w/out having to actually spend time with them. In terms of the working from home option, I know my staff can’t do so, but as a manager I’d have severe trust issues in allowing them to do so if it were possible.. In certain things a manager could judge employees by output, but it would require managers to give up some measure of control, and that is a difficult thing for many of us to do. Middle and upper management benefit by the “Office Space” set-up of things and even if they didn’t, most of us have issues with change and having to alter policies and traditions to deal with the new way of doing things would be too high of a hurdle for most companies to jump (at least that would be their perception).

    • Doug says:

      I agree that in a lot of cases, it simply is not possible, or practical, to offer working from home. I even agree that when employees are working remotely, closer scrutiny will be required by management. You raise a good point – I think that although it’s often portrayed as a trust issue, the real crux of the matter is ceding control. Although there are many legitimate arguments for a traditional office space, I’ve known several senior managers averse to the idea because they would have to cede direct control (though my no means authority) over their employees. And in many of these cases the desire for control stemmed more from personal vanity than from any need to get the job done right.

      There does have to be a good reason to implement change on a broad level, but again this does not have to be a black-and-white, digitally on-off issue. Setting initial limitations on frequency and scope (who may or may not) could keep the process in check while someone (HR?) studied how best to make the situation work. (For example, how should managers maintain authority and keep on top of the employee’s performance remotely.)

      Mostly I was just venting – I have had more opportunity than most to enjoy the luxury of working from home, and there may be opportunities at this job, in the not-too-near future. But I do get seriously frustrated when managers make poor decisions, or refuse to make a decision, based on poor information, reasoning or personal issues.

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