In 1988 a spaceship named DOS 3.0 landed in my yard. The aliens (through the company I worked for) recruited me and I became a member of a very elite group. I started carrying a laptop computer with me on my sales calls. (Well, it wasn’t exactly a laptop unless you had a very big lap). I carried it in a kind of briefcase. It was state of the art. It ran at 4 Megahertz and had a twenty meg hard drive. It was so advanced that its external storage facility was a 3 ½” hard diskette rather than a 5 ¼” floppy. And, by the way, in those days floppy discs really were floppy! Everyone who saw it was impressed.
I used it to access a database of my company’s inventory and submit orders. Those were the days before the World Wide Web. The Internet existed but only people schooled in the arcana of Gopher and Mosaic could hope to do anything with it. It was a strange and forbidden land. My computer, with the aid of elaborate script files, connected through the normal copper wire analog phone system directly to our warehouse’s IBM 360 mini mainframe. By today’s standards the process was unspeakably slow. But it was as wondrous in its time as steamships were in the days of commercial sailing craft.
I had become interested in computers in 1976 while studying symbolic logic in graduate school. At the time computers were as big as large freezers and programs were entered for processing via punch cards. I took a programming class and liked it. Then I took assembly language and realized that while I loved the idea of computing, I didn’t really want to study that hard. Instead I quit school and went off to live in the Virgin Islands.
The island adventure came and went. And so I found myself lugging around a computer in a briefcase and coaxing it to work its magic with DOS 3.0. The mouse hadn’t yet been invented, nor had the graphical user interface, of course, so all instructions had to be entered in the form of commands. Color monitors were future dreams. The screen was a noncommittal darkish brown color. But I was good at DOS and was generally considered to be a technically savvy guy. This, by the way, didn’t help me with the women since geeks were not to become sex objects for another twenty years.
I liked playing with computers. I got Windows when it came out and dutifully upgraded to the latest version of every software program that I owned. I had email through Prodigy and then CompuServe back when only enthusiasts like me were online. The only people to communicate with were other computer lovers. I kept up with new developments in computing as much as possible while working full time as a salesperson but eventually and inevitably fell behind, a victim of Moore’s Law. Keeping up was like running beside an accelerating train. It was a losing proposition. Today computer technology is a field for experts.
Fortunately, the same changes that made my computer expertise irrelevant and outdated made the machines themselves fabulously useful. Today we buy relatively inexpensive programs, point at pictures and text, click and the machine does everything else. This is especially true of Apple products. I suspect that somewhere deep inside Microsoft offerings DOS lives to this day like a horse hidden in the engine compartment of a car.
So now we should, in theory, be wildly productive. We have a tool that can calculate anything, organize everything and communicate with everybody on the surface of the planet. It’s cheap and easy to operate. No real expertise is required and geeks work cheap if, for some reason, you can’t be bothered to do stuff yourself. You and I should be some pretty darn productive motor scooters! And the people who should benefit most of all should be salespeople. After all, our job is to communicate with people and get them to buy stuff. Since everyone is totally connected in every possible way at every minute of the day technology should have made our jobs easy. Alas, that hasn’t turned out to be the case. Much of the promise of technology has turned out to be stillborn for business people and consumers alike, a victim of Sir Karl Popper’s famous Law of Unintended Consequences.
Why? Well, it takes two to tango. *
If you are the one reader who has been following closely and not multitasking by watching retro surf movies on You Tube, talking to your therapist on your cell phone, friending a new local pizza parlor on Facebook, Linking In and checking tweets about antique bird feeders you’ll remember that we left our hero frantically running alongside the speeding train that is the evolution of technology. And this is one race he has no hope of winning.
The problem is an embarrassment of riches. There are far more tools than any person can master and many of them, while seductive, end up being far less efficacious than the good old telephone.
So the choice is to fling myself onto the train or just stop running. I’m smart enough to know that trains are big and powerful. They’re dangerous. If I don’t get onboard I may never discover the marketing potential of Facebook or the community-building miracle of Twitter. I’ll miss that big connection that can only come through Linked In. Or maybe I’ll make the leap only to look up from my texting just in time to see the truck that kills me.
I like keeping my books with QuickBooks. I work with Excel every day. Email, in moderation, is downright handy and my iPhone is useful for calling people. (Yes, it does have a phone app). I realize that in the real world of small business it only takes a couple of programs to run a successful business. The rest are just time wasting and spirit numbing distractions. Indeed, spending too much time with them can put you out of business.
So forgive me if I don’t answer your tweet or quickly respond to your text. It’s unlikely we’ll webinar together. Have fun on the high-speed rails of technology. I won’t be riding with you. This is my stop.
* (The idiom “it takes two to tango” comes from the popular 1952 song by Al Hoffman and Dick Manning, a song that was popularized by Pearl Bailey).