A Cycle Worth Repeating

For a while in the 1990s, the Internet was referred to as the “information super-highway.” Society was bombarded with new terms like “RAM,” “gig,” “apps,” etc.

Those people on the cutting edge thought that was great, but some older people were frightened to death.

Young children happily watching Arthur on PBS and Barney videos were suddenly encouraged to interact online, email a pen pal halfway across the globe, and stop collecting DVDs because the same movies could be purchased using an Xbox. Those children were actually being weaned on technology.

You don’t believe me? How many families have given their toddler an old television remote (with the batteries removed) because there is nothing the kid likes to play with more than that shiny black device with all those colorful buttons--the same buttons Mom and Dad press madly every night, like frustrated Jeopardy! contestants who just can’t ring in on time and gain control of the board.

As time passed, miniature Steve Jobs and Bill Gates replicas appeared, and suddenly CEOs under 25 years old were all the rage. Some people warned that Big Brother was watching, and former fantasy toys like Dick Tracy’s telephone-watch became real.

Even options in a new car were more electronic than mechanical; it was no longer impressive for a car to be equipped with heavy-duty suspension; rather, buyers were seeking Bluetooth and MapQuest capabilities.

The desire for “flashy things” became a mainstay of operation over substance. Do you want proof? During the same period, a man not even 50 years old was elected president. We bought into the newest, freshest, state-of-the-art items and chose a leader many knew nothing about, but who fit into that “new wave,” plus he looked really nice in a suit. And he talked about wanting better things.

Inevitable Repetition

Now please don’t misunderstand me--change is good. Embracing new technology and opening minds to different ways of thinking are also good. All of this moves society in a positive direction, but there is something lacking with this “fresh approach”--blamelessness.

One might be able to temporarily ignore or look beyond or have little consideration for the past, but friends, no one can erase the past. The mistakes and successes of the past are virtually ignored these days.

The irreverence of today’s leaders and climbers is apparent, and that may unravel all of the development that is being attempted. The future is not made of Teflon, nor is it able to resist the facts that impact our world.

Rather, the future is a sponge that absorbs everything and slowly dries out, ready to be used again. In order for it to resume its shape, though, it is critical for us to take responsibility for the mistakes, and “fly right” into the next challenge. If we dispense with responsibility, it is because we fear failure and to fear failure is to avoid risk.

And we are always trying to minimize risk, but it contains the strongest lessons from the past:

• We witnessed the catastrophic deaths of nearly 3,500 people and more than 6,000 wounded in the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In that same year, Enron collapsed from corporate fat-cat “excesses.”

• The U.S. invaded Afghanistan in 2001 and Iraq in 2003. We were unable to find weapons of mass destruction. We captured Saddam Hussein, and his country prosecuted and hanged him. Also in 2003, the space shuttle Columbia broke apart on re-entry, and seven crew members were lost. Most space programs were halted for more than 2 years.

• In 2005, Hurricane Katrina wreaked havoc, with 1,830 people dead, more than 700 missing, and $80 billion lost while the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was completely inept.

• The recession of 2008 hit as the real-estate bubble burst, and the Troubled Asset Relief Program bought $700-billion worth of troubled assets. General Motors (GM) declared bankruptcy. There was a 7.2-percent unemployment rate nationwide.*

An Explanation

A decade full of risks concluded with thousands of victims, but oddly there was no one to blame. How was this possible?

The answer is simple--the anonymity of technology allowed for the truth to hide.

• How did Enron collapse? The real numbers were hidden in the computerized account programs.

• What happened to the space shuttle? Errant numbers were configured in the formulas.

• Why did FEMA take so long? The programs weren’t built for rapid deployment.

• How did GM get so far behind on its debts? Fearful employees were unable to hide losses among the misstated figures any longer.

• How did Fannie Mae’s and Freddie Mac’s problems avoid exposure for so long? Staff moved unresolved debt from program to program until they ran out of places to hide it. Then it was too late to fix, so it had to explode.

We assuredly need technology. We need these changes and advances to move forward as a society, but we shouldn’t sacrifice integrity, responsibility, and ownership in this age of anonymity. It is what distinguishes us from our animal friends on the other side of the bars at the zoo.

Do you think the fortunes of people like the Carnegies, Mellons, and Rockefellers came from avoiding or embracing responsibility? Look it up on Wikipedia.

*United States Department of Labor

Ron Ciancutti is the Purchasing Manager for Cleveland Metroparks. He is not on Facebook, but he can be reached at rdc@clevelandmetroparks.com.