The Automation Demon

From the rotary telephone in my dorm room, I spun the longest digit--the “O.” I waited. The operator came on the line, and I explained that I wanted to place a collect call to my parents’ home. It was 7:30 p.m. on the second Sunday of the month in 1980. 60 Minutes wasn’t on for another half hour yet, so my timing was good. I heard my mom answer and accept the charges. We began talking before the operator even left the line. Grandma was next. She asked if I was staying warm enough. It was April. I assured her I was. My sister got on and my dad picked up the line upstairs. The three of us talked about the Cleveland Indians, and Dad asked if I had enough money. I assured him I did. Mom got back on and asked the mom questions, and said she’d be sending a $20 bill, some cans of soup, boxes of macaroni, etc. I thanked her and said I would talk to them in two weeks, same time. I hung up energized by the love of my family. It was nice my grandparents came over every other Sunday to talk to me at college. They, too, hung up feeling good about things. The kid sounded like he was doing OK.

A Different World

I have a son in college now. Sometimes on his way to class, he text-messages me from his cell phone directly to my computer. That’s rather nice. I like hearing how he’s doing. As an athlete, he is in the gym most evenings. The other day, he squatted a tremendous amount of weight in his workout and sent a picture to my wife’s cell phone (I still refuse to carry one), showing the impressive stack of weights. He was standing next to it, giving the “thumbs up” sign, smiling at the camera: full story with pictures, certainly no need to write a letter home. That evening I pulled his bank account up online. He’s been spending fairly conservatively, but I thought it best to tuck a few more bucks in there. I transferred him some funds from my account--all online. I got a text message later that week; he thanked me for the money. He had written a report in his senior year of high school about nutrition and wanted to reference it in another report he was doing at college. I found it in his room at home, scanned it, and sent it as an attachment to his return e-mail. Sometimes when the weather is bad, my wife calls to see if it is bad where he is. Since they both have the same cell provider, there is no charge for the call. It’s like he’s right down the street.

All good uses of automation, right? I mean, we have him covered on just about everything, no? If there was a family emergency, he would know in a minute. How can you beat that? If it’s all so good, why do I feel conflicted? Am I just some Old World curmudgeon, or is there a reason? Hold that thought.

The Electronic Age

My 10 year old remembered last night that a special program was going to be on TV, but the program was already half over. We ran to the TV and saw the last 20 minutes. When it was finished, he went to the video shelf and brought down the DVD of the same show that he received for his birthday last year. “Now can we watch the first half?” he asked. That was very resourceful, and it was great to see the whole program, but again, I felt something was missing. I remember when my sisters and I coveted the TV guide around Christmas, and drew a large chart as to when each special program was airing. As I recall, the anticipation was almost as good as the show.

Maybe anticipation is some of what’s missing. Is it good to always know we have the security of a backup system--wherever we go? Does that make us more careless, or even (stay with me here, folks) less independent? In high school, I kept a bike in the back of my junky truck so whenever I broke down (which was often), I could get home. Today, we have the cell phone, AAA, and a helicopter airlift in the event of an injury. Why check the oil? If the engine seizes, we call a number and someone comes and gets us, tows the car away, and within 30 minutes we are at home on the couch watching HBO.

The Bottom Line

Let’s add up all these factors: immediate access to everyone and everything in all situations and total “backup” during any and all emergencies, eliminating any need for anticipation or schedules. We no longer need to prepare. We no longer need to be punctual. We no longer have to grow, cope, understand, cooperate, or bother with the things that even remotely annoy us. What is the bottom line? We don’t need anything, except everyone who provides the support that makes us think we are so independent! Yet what is created here are people not capable of finding the Quickie Mart without a GPS!

Has anyone else seen this yet? Do you see that vacant look in the eyes of your burger-making order-taker? Try throwing that drone off the path one time by asking, “Oh, can you add another order of fries to that?” The clerk will blink, roll the eyes, exhale, and then derail the computer and have to call Hal the manager over, pop the machine open, back out the order, and reboot. As the food sits there getting colder and customers behind whisper ther curses, the other drones wander over with mouths agape to see the spectacle of the register being handled by a seasoned vet. “Man, that Hal is good.”

Generation Oblivious

I was a product of the sixties and seventies, and had numerous pop-culture role models that encouraged me to hate authority, resist conformity, and find my own way through passive resistance, but never do I recall any of those directives telling me not to care. In fact, the whole “generation gap” was about insisting what we are supposed to care about! Staying sharp, being capable and seeking self-sufficiency was, in my world, always in style.

I know every generation looks at the ones they are raising and shakes their heads. This pattern has been in place since the beginning of time. But ask yourself a simple question--was the fear of the next generation about what they were going to do in the years ahead or that they were so lethargic and indifferent they wouldn’t do anything?

Automation, to us, was revered and appreciated as a time-saver. It did not replace the need for thought and responsibility; it enhanced the ability to provide it. Today’s young people feel entitled to automation and seem to lean on it to the point that they expect little of themselves. It’s almost as if asking questions and wanting to know is against the grain. Fully informed is not in vogue. Remember the famous statement by Ray Bradbury in his forward-looking book, Fahrenheit 451: “She didn't want to know how a thing was done, but why. That can be embarrassing. You ask Why to a lot of things and you wind up very unhappy indeed, if you keep at it. The poor girl's better off dead.”

Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He can be reached via e-mail