Yesterday I went to buy some groceries at a nearby Safeway Store. I first went through the usual heavy traffic to get there. After spending a great deal of time trying to find what I wanted, due to massive enlargement of the store, acceptance of “if you make customers wander around they will buy something not on their list” marketing, and lack of employees in the store proper, I went to the check stand and stood in slowly moving lines. These seemed to be due to many factors — the checkers trying to respond to the “no” answers to their asking if the customers had found everything they were looking for, the massive use of coupons and various “award” gimmicks, the lack of free bags and baggers, and confusion over swiping one’s card and shoving it into the newly purchased (and therefore subtly different —capable of either swiping or shoving and incorporating strange unexplained symbols) credit card device and leaving it until it said you can take it. I found the entire exercise frustrating, partly because I had only a few articles and the “under 15” aisle that was open was clogged with people having many more than their allotted number. And I was not looking forward to entering the traffic again to take my meager purchases home.
While standing in my line, I could not help but remember how simple it had been to shop at this store 30 or 40 years ago. Granted there was not such a staggering choice of products available. So what has happened? True, the population of the area has soared, and Silicon valley continues to offer jobs and wealth. But also, the seemingly small change in credit cards and associated devices to the EMV format which was bothering a few people in the grocery line is symptomatic of larger problems. This change is not confined to the stores in your town, but is a world-wide bank-sponsored attempt to decrease fraud. It will take some time to put into place. But when that has happened everyone will be faced with yet another set of devices which will no longer permit swiping, but will undoubtedly be able to handle other tasks having to do with the ongoing attempts to replace currency. And so it will go. And as is more and more true of many should-be-simple-to-operate devices which are involved in our lives, there will probably be little effort paid to standardization among different manufacturers of these devices . And this is true of many more complex products — home appliances, computers and peripherals including software, automobiles, you name it. These things are tools to improve the quality of our lives, and we should not have to spend too much of these lives learning to deal with changes in the tools that are often trivial in the long term.
I am, after all, a veteran promoter of technological progress, creativity, innovation, change and such things. They are the essential to our success. But I am also very aware that if there is too much of such things too fast, the burden on the users becomes unacceptable.
I have had it with constant attempts to make me “upgrade” the digital products in my life. I was content with iPhoto on my Mac. It did everything I wanted it to. I could effortlessly get to other editing program, and it allowed me to organize things as much as I desired. But mainly I had used it long enough not to have to think about it. I almost dropped Apple when they changed to Photos, because there were minor changes that took effort to learn, and for me, the change was a negative one, not only in having to learn new tricks, but in the content of the software itself. But I admit my judgement may have been clouded, because at the same time I had to go to a newer operating system and my computer had to be encoded, causing it to be much slower (Stanford’s fault, not Apple). Apple continues to be making great profit by changing and attempting to find a universal operating system for all of its products, but although I held still for Photos, I am resisting the increasing pressure from them to again “upgrade” my smart phone, and if they keep trying to make me put stuff on my computer I neither need nor want, even though I have used Apple equipment from the start, I am out of there.
On a larger note, I think that technologically advanced nations like the U.S., and the businesses within them, should start to worry about the pace of change. Certainly computers have resulted in a large number of well-paying jobs, since people like me, who have used them for many years, are now dependent on IT people, who desperately try to keep up on them on a full-time basis. But the disappearing, well paid and rewarding “muscle memory” skill jobs will not come back. Repetitive white-collar jobs are following. The re-training of people to do more cerebral and people-skill jobs will be horrendous, and may require a couple of generations, by which time the game will probably have changed again. Perhaps the wide spread support of people like Trump, although seemingly a most unattractive person in all respects, is because he seems to be offering a simpler solution to the problems of life—let him call the shots and everything will be terrific. This has been the weapon of most dictators and revolutionaries over time, as has the promise to bring back the past (which was never as good as we think it was). But in the long term it has been shown not to work.
I, for one, am both amused and worried about the present estimates by technology visionaries, such as the one that the U.S. will be highly dependent on driverless vehicles in ten years. Maybe the people that work at Tesla and Google are eager to get there, and the cars are already being used for shuttles around their buildings. But the visionaries tend to forget that there are 320 million people living in the country, many of them dependent on people-driven cars (truckers) , and may of them simply liking to drive cars (me). And historically massive changes in large populations due to technological advances have taken more on the order of 50 years. Fifty years ago, I had been working on the first lunar and planetary spacecraft at the Jet Propulsion Lab. The visionaries were predicting colonies on the Moon and Mars in 20 or 30 years. Hasn’t seemed to happen yet. Autonomous vehicles can be made, and are running around on streets in various places in small numbers. But designing and building the vehicles may be the easy part. And pushing the schedule too fast may result in incredible angst. After all, our present traffic mess has required well over 100 years to accomplish.