Do We Take Technology for Granted?

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal's Chin Music (19-Jun-2007)

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The story of Jan Grzebski—a Polish railway worker who recently awoke from a 19-year coma caused by an accident in 1988—prompted a local Montreal talk radio host to ask listeners what they would find most shocking if they were to wake up from a coma after nearly two decades. Not surprisingly, the majority of callers said they would be most surprised by the advances in technology—especially the Internet.

Just imagine waking up to discover an ethereal digital world that breaks down all communication barriers formerly constrained by geography and expense. The conveniences provided to us by technology seem so commonplace because we've grown accustomed to them. We treat these marvels as ordinary as a piece of toast. But to someone who has no previous knowledge of any of this, it's something right out of science fiction. They might find it strange that of all the editors I work with regularly—some of whom I've worked with for years—I haven't met a single one of them face-to-face. In fact, I don't even know what many of them look like; yet, I deal with them on a daily basis.

Many of us in an automated working environment do take technology for granted. For all the complaining we do about technology—and I've done my fair share of complaining—when things go horribly wrong, we rarely extol technology for the increase in productivity and the convenience of communication it has given us. We accept all of these advantages as the new norm without thinking about how we used to struggle with "the old ways."

The younger generation, born into a digital world, not only take technology for granted, they don't even know otherwise. They have nothing to compare this digital world to. But I recall a time when everything had to be written out in longhand, and research had to be done in places called libraries. I would spend hours sifting through the stacks and squinting at blurry microfilm—most of which was horribly out of date.

So, in the spirit of this topic, I decided to forgo my computer and word processor and write my column on an old Olympia Splendid 33 manual typewriter that once belonged to my parents. In its heyday, the Splendid 33 was marketed as a "portable" typewriter even though the metal contraption weighs more than a surly Rottweiler—and is about as manageable.

Splendid 33 Typewriter

There I was, in my home office, the quiet tapping of my soft-touch keyboard replaced by the firm and comparatively louder striking of the Splendid's typebars, each jockeying for position to make contact with the paper. Progress was slowed substantially because I had to occasionally pry one of the typebars free. It seemed the Splendid had difficulty keeping up with the speed at which I was accustomed to typing.

As I wrote, I found myself subconsciously thinking about copy-and-pasting text, hitting the backspace to make corrections, pressing the Save button, and of course, consulting my trusty spell-checker. Unfortunately, that tiny F7 key had to be replaced by a leaden Oxford English Dictionary perched beside my typewriter. My desk's legs struggled with not only the weight of my tools of the trade, but also the 11 pounds of force it took to type a single letter.

I came to appreciate many of the things we often take for granted: automatic line wraps; touch typing; the ability to move entire sections of text without having to retype the whole document; researching a story without having to hit the pavement; and finding pictures of a half man, half ring-tailed lemur living in Madagascar at the touch of a button. OK, perhaps we could live without that last one, but it's nice to know we have the option.

Even though I wrote this whole column on an old manual typewriter and jotted down some ideas in longhand, I still had to retype it on my computer, run the spell-checker, do my final edits, and then e-mail the file to my editor. I had to do this because, taking technology for granted or not, this is the reality of today's work environment. Plus, I was afraid my editor wouldn't share my enthusiasm for the experiment—especially if he were forced to retype my entire column from a hard copy sent by snail mail.

Copyright © 2007 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.