Too Much of a Good Thing

Posted: June 14th, 2008 | Author: | Filed under: Business, Culture, Technology | Tags: , , | No Comments »

Whenever there’s a newfangled trend on the scene, the soothsayers are quick to decide it’s going to get out of hand and take over the world. Women’s suffrage had men worrying about domestic anarchy. Same-sex marriage has crazy cultural conservatives predicting the legalization of bestiality. TV had George Orwell all worried about Big Brother surveillance. And the first computers had a lot of sci-fi writers predicting the age of robots.

That’s not really how change works, of course. When Thomas Edison invented electricity, and offered to help Congress tally votes faster with an electric ballot box, they said no. Counting by hand gives them more time to schmooze, and schmoozing is essential to politics. TV didn’t kill radio, because for some things (like driving long distances) radio is still useful. And just because we CAN use computers and the Internet all the time, doesn’t mean we want to. Sometimes, the old-fashioned way is best.

Two stories today suggest I’m right about this. First, companies are finally starting to see that constant web access, first hailed as a productivity aid, is a problem if it means we’re all IM-ing our friends from work, or doing things piecemeal in little emails instead of actually having meetings. Second, university profs have figured out that Microsoft Word is great for notetaking, but students using laptops to play Minesweeper in class is not so useful. So the companies and the profs are experimenting with ways to regulate technology and channel it in exclusively positive directions.

Which means the soothsayers should calm down: Pens, paper and conference halls are not going anywhere as yet.