Thursday, February 9, 2006

From then to now: progress in our time

"Is it getting better, or do you feel the same?" - U2, 'One'

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When talking about progress - whether it's a reality or a myth - it's good to have some perspective.

For instance, grandma and I were chatting last night about her recent discovery of the Internet. About a month ago, I got her hooked up and logged on to find a job and/or a date. She's found a date and she's making progress (there's that word) on the job front. But what most interests her is learning what the Internet is, does, and offers.

I always ask her what we did before the Internet, even though I can remember - because it wasn't that long ago. It's a wonder what a few years can do.

Monday night I saw a scene from "L.A. Confidential" where a business man had this giant, wooden desk. And you know what? It didn't have anything on it.

Come look at my desk at work. Come on, don't be shy. See all that stuff? See that glowing screen? That high-tech phone, the picture CDs, those stacks of paper?

What did companies (financial institutions, especially) do before computers?

My grandma told me. She worked at Consumers Energy, a giant, multi-state utility company headquartered here in Jackson. She said that, at their old HQ downtown, the entire bottom floor ("The Vault," she called it) was filled with nothing but file cabinets full of everything the company had done since the 1920s.

Today, all that information could fit on my iPod.

A lot of times I take for granted how much technology has changed out lives. Then I think about our account software here at work. With it, we know your name, address, what accounts you've opened with us, a complete account history - all for 40,000-plus members. And it all sits in a little box in our IT room. Before that, it all had to be tracked on paper in paper files in filing cabinets.


My iPod brought a lot of this to light. On road trips, I always take a stack of CDs to listen to on the way. Now? I bring my iPod, and my entire music collection, and it all fits in the space of about one CD and jewel case. Plus, it's pretty - oh so pretty.

Grandma's ignorance operating the Internet has also opened my eyes. We 20-somethings probably discovered the Internet at home or at school. Shucks, it was part of my junion year curriculum. We know computers, we know the Web - we just plain know.

Simple things like accessing your e-mail anywhere amazes Grandma. "But where is it?" she asked me.

"It's out there," I said, flapping my hands. "In the ether, somewhere."

The concept was totally alien. As was saving pictures on the Internet to her computer ("You can do what?").

I can't say that progress has improved life all that much. Sure, I love my iBook. But I also understand we have to employ people that just work on our computers at the office. That's all they do. Fix the machines that were supposed to make life easier.

Plus the lack of security (issues like identity theft are all the rage now) and the two-years-and-its-obsolete mentality. Computers make some things easier, sure, but some things get a bit more complicated.

But I'll enjoy Google - how I can learn anything there ever was to know about anything in just a few keystrocks - and take heart in the fact that we don't have an entire floor devoted to member files or cabinets.

It also excites me to think of what's coming. Who knows what commonplace, everyday task we handle now will be totally and utterly altered in the years to come (though, with a warning - we've all seen The Matrix and Terminator 2).

Change, it's a comin'. It always has.

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