My wife and I were waiting near the departure gate at a miniature regional airport in Louisiana when the announcement blared: “Due to weather in Atlanta, your scheduled flight will not be disembarking for 15 minutes.” Dismayed by the news, we exchanged worried looks and prepared for the worst. We had two further connections to make after Atlanta, where we’d be dealing with a layover of 1 hour and 20 minutes. It wasn’t lost bags or missed connections that concerned us; it was the wedding in Scotland to which we’d been invited.
At this point in my career, having been through 15 countries on five different continents in the last four years, I’ve grown used to the experience of lost luggage. However, I’ve never lost a bag or missed a connection in the United States, so I was pretty confident we’d see our luggage at the other end, assuming we got there ourselves. Less fatalistic, my wife had her laptop out to check the times of the later connecting flights in Europe. “The next flight from Atlanta to Amsterdam is 8 hours after the previous,” she reported. “We’re not going to get to the wedding.”
It was precisely at that point that a thought popped into my head, much like the old Microsoft paperclip help character used to tap on the screen to draw your attention. I know I should have been worrying about the wedding (and I carry some residual guilt about that), but I can’t help it: I love to observe “the process” at all times. I’m sure that if I were allowed to, I’d draw a chalk circle around me at every opportunity, per Taiichi Ohno’s philosophy, and happily stay in there for hours just watching and analyzing the world, considering what is good about it and what would need improving.
From my imaginary chalk circle at the airport, I saw that the waiting area was full of people with their heads down looking at bright little screens, the light reflecting in their eyes as they tried to find out why the flight was delayed or looked at their travel plans beyond Atlanta. Well, working in business for some time now, I appreciate that there can be an information lag when an electronic system isn’t immediately updated by the meathead behind the computer, or because the meathead has incorrectly entered the data into the system.
This made me wonder why we, as a society, have become so reliant on technology for all the answers. Granted, technology has overcome problems I never knew I had, but why are we more likely to seek guidance from the Internet than from the employee at the desk? Have we become so accustomed to electronic devices that we’ve lost the ability to seek advice from, not to mention trust, the human elements of the system?
I’m very much aware that in business and industry, an army of inspectors checks goods on receipt, and auditors swarm over premises to confirm that someone neglected a requirement. However, most of us don’t have the luxury of these resources in our personal lives, so perhaps leveraging technology gives us confidence in the uncertain world around us. As the old saying goes, “In God we trust; everyone else must bring data.”
That still leaves some gaps, though. If I’m forced to trust “the machine,” I do so never truly knowing where it gets its data from, or how accurate the information is. But unless I want to turn my back on the world and live in the wilderness, I must commit to implicitly trusting technology. When it’s incorrect or lets me down, I must still accept it because I have only one way of discovering the errors: after the fact.
So to all the technology I rely on, here’s my commitment to you:
To gas stations, I trust that your pumps will dispense premium rather than regular gas, and I trust that you will give me the volume I ask for. To my car, I trust that the speed you display is accurate, even though you’re sometimes at variance with the speed displayed on my TomTom GPS. At least the two of you have never argued about it; I call that integrity.
To light switches, I trust you to provide the correct amount of electricity to the lamp to illuminate my darkness. You work every time I ask you to, and I never have to consider where you find your resources.
To my Snoopy watch, I’ve never calibrated you to confirm if even one minute of your time is the same as the atomic clocks’. But I still thank you for pointing to the positions on the dial to indicate the passing of time.
To my air conditioner, thank you for regulating the temperature to one-tenth of a degree accuracy, even though I don’t think my body appreciates such subtlety.
To my refrigerator, thank you for reminding me I’ve left your door open too long by blinking and pinging at me, as I try to fill you with delicious contents.
Thank you, Google, for trying to finish my searches for me—without first asking—by giving me drop-down options, and for auto-filling the search boxes when I type in “why.” It’s as if you’ve read my mind.
I’m not mocking technology here, far from it: I’m one of the biggest tech-heads on the planet. But from time to time I like to try being a little less reliant on it to get me through the day. I like to see how different the world is when I make a phone call rather than sending an e-mail, try a face-to-face conversation rather than a phone call, or give up TV for a book. Sometimes I get very interesting results. Once I gave up the phone for a day, which forced me out onto the shop floor to speak to Mr. Manager. En route I got waylaid by an operator, who had an excellent solution to a problem we were working on.
“The last guy who did your job used to send 10 e-mails to us every day, and he never came out to see us,” the operator commented. “Thank you for coming over.” To this day he doesn’t know I was on the way to see his boss. However, my giving up the phone made a positive change in his process and empowered him to make further changes.
As for the wedding I mentioned at the start of this ramble, we made all our connections, with technology’s help, along with some added running through airports and lots of swearing. My bag wasn’t as successful at making it on time, although my wife’s was. This was the same bag that held my car keys. Keys for the the car with my kilt locked inside, which I was going to wear to the wedding. My spare car keys, of course, languished at home, a 30-mile taxi ride away.
Like a crazy road movie, we eventually got to the wedding on time—which, at the end of the day and all philosophizing aside, was the important thing.