Is Life Becoming Too Complex? The Devil Is in the Details….! Can We Keep Up?

Details matter in this life, and they demand our attention – increasingly so. It is becoming impossible to live under illusions such as, “Details are confined mainly to the realm of specialists, like the computer programmer and the watchmaker.” The need for “attention to detail” on the part of everyman has never been greater.

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I’ve been around for a while, now – over seventy-six years. Given all those years and, with the detached attitude of an impartial observer, I have reached some general conclusions regarding technology, time, and our quality of life, today.

Conclusion #1:
The opportunity for living a comfortable, meaningful, and rewarding life has never been greater – especially in this United States of America. We have so many choices today in this society, for better or for worse.

Conclusion #2:
The veracity of conclusion #1 is due to the positive influence of science and technology on our lives. Today’s information age has delivered the world, indeed, the universe (and Amazon, too) to our desktops and living rooms.

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It is true that computers and the internet are virtually indispensable, now.  However, the tools and the technology of the scientific/information age change continually, at an ever more rapid pace. Can we humans continue to keep pace with it all without making painful choices and sacrifices in our lives? Have computer problems ever driven you nuts? Do we have too many choices and opportunities now, thanks to the internet and stores like Walmart? How often have you shopped for something specific in the supermarket or on Amazon and been bewildered by the blizzard of choices which accost you thanks to high-tech marketing? Even choosing a hair shampoo poses a challenge for today’s shopper.

Conclusion #3:
Scientific knowledge and the rapid technological progress it spawns have become, universally, a 50/50 proposition for the human race. The reality suggests that for every positive gain in our lives brought about by our growing technology base, there is, unrelentingly, a negative factor to be overcome as well – a price to be paid. There is virtually a one-to-one correspondence at play – seemingly like an unspoken law of nature which always holds sway – much like the influence of gravitational attraction! In familiar parlance, “There is no free lunch in life: Rather, a price to paid for everything!”

The best example possible of this contention? Consider Einstein’s revelation in 1905 that mass and energy are interchangeable: e=mc2. This, the most famous equation in science, opened not only new frontiers in physics, but also the possibility of tremendous industrial power – at minimal cost. On the negative side, along with nuclear power plants, we now have nuclear weapons capable, in one day, of essentially ending life on this planet – thanks to that same simple equation. As for usable, nuclear-generated power, the potential price for such energy has been dramatically demonstrated in several notable cases around the globe over recent decades.

Need another example? How about the information technology which enables those handy credit cards which make purchasing “goodies” so quick and easy? On the negative side, how about the punishing cost of credit for account balances not promptly paid? More disturbing is the fact that such technology in the hands of internet criminals makes one’s private financial information so vulnerable, today. I found out the hard way, recently, that just changing your hacked credit card for a new one does not necessarily end your problems with unauthorized charges! The price in real money paid by society for foiling technology savvy ne-er do-wells is huge, in the billions of dollars every year.

Conclusion #4
Society, today, seems to discount the wisdom inherent in the old, familiar phrase, “The devil is in the details!” We are easily enticed by the lure of “user-friendly” computers and devices, and indeed, most are generally well-designed to be just that – considering what they can do for us. But today’s scientists and engineers fully understand the profundity of that “devil is in the details” contention as they burrow deeper and deeper into nature’s secrets. The lawyer and the business man fully understand the message conveyed given the importance of carefully reading “the fine print” embedded in today’s legal documents and agreements. How many of us take (or can even afford) the time to read all the paperwork/legalese which accompanies the purchase of a new automobile or a house! Increasingly, we seem unable/unwilling to keep up with the burgeoning demands imposed by the exponential growth of detail in our lives, and that is not a healthy trend.

I am convinced and concerned that many of us are in way over our heads when it comes to dealing with the more sophisticated aspects of today’s personal computers, and these systems are becoming increasingly necessary for families and seniors merely trying to getting by in today’s internet world. Even those of us with engineering/computer backgrounds have our hands full keeping up with the latest developments and devices: I can personally attest to that! The devil IS in the details, and the details involved in computer science are growing exponentially. Despite the frequently quoted phrase “user-friendly interface,” I can assure you that the complexity lurking just below that user-friendly, top onion-skin-layer of your computer or iPhone is very vast, indeed, and that is why life gets sticky and help-entities like the Geek Squad will never lack for stymied customers.

Make no mistake: It is not merely a question of “Can we handle the specific complexities of operating/maintaining our personal computers?” Rather, the real question is, “Can we handle all the complexities/choices which the vast capabilities of the computer/internet age have spawned?”  

Remember those “user manuals?” Given the rapid technological progress of recent decades, the degree of choice/complexity growth is easily reflected by the growing size of user manuals, those how-to instructions for operating our new autos, ovens, cooktops, washing machines, and, now, phones and computers. Note: The “manuals” for phones and computers are now so complex that printed versions cannot possibly come with these products. Ironically, there are virtually no instructions “in the box.” Rather, many hundreds of data megabytes now construct dozens of computer screens which demonstrate the devices’ intricacies on-line. These software “manuals” necessarily accommodate the bulk and the constantly changing nature of the product itself. Long gone are the old “plug it in and press this button to turn it on” product advisories. More “helpful” product options result in significantly more complexity! Also gone are the “take it in for repair” days. My grandfather ran a radio repair shop in Chicago seventy years ago. Today, it is much cheaper and infinitely more feasible to replace rather than repair anything electronic.

An appropriate phrase to describe today’s burgeoning technologies is “exponential complexity.” What does that really mean and what does it tell us about our future ability to deal with the coming “advantages” of technology which will rain down upon us? I can illustrate what I mean.

Let us suppose that over my seventy-six years, the complexity of living in our society has increased by 5% per year – a modest assumption given the rapid technological gains in recent decades. Using a very simple “exponential” math calculation, at that rate, life for me today is over 40 times more complex than it was for my parents the day I was born!

To summarize: Although many of the technological gains made over recent decades were intended to open new opportunities and to make life easier for us all, they have imposed upon us a very large burden in the form of the time, intelligence, and intellectual energy required to understand the technology and to use it both efficiently and wisely. Manual labor today is much minimized; the intellectual efforts required to cope with all the newest technology is, indeed, very significant and time-consuming. There is a price to be paid…for everything.

The major question: At what point does technology cease to help us as human beings and begin to subjugate us to the tyranny of its inherent, inevitable and necessary details? The realm in which the details live is also home to the devil.

The devil tempts. The burgeoning details and minutia in today’s society act to corrode our true happiness. We should be cautious lest we go too far up the technology curve and lose sight of life’s simpler pleasures… like reading a good book in a quiet place – cell phones off and out of reach. The noise and bustle of Manhattan can appear endlessly intoxicating to the visitor, but such an environment is no long-term substitute for the natural sounds and serenity of nature at her finest. The best approach to living is probably a disciplined and wisely proportioned concoction of both worlds.

The above recipe for true happiness involves judicious choices, especially when it comes to technology and all the wonderful opportunities it offers. Good choices can make a huge difference. That is the ultimate message of this post.

As I write this, I have recently made some personal choices: I am redoubling my efforts to gain a more solid grasp of Windows 10 and OS X on my Mac. Despite the cautionary message of this post regarding technology, I see this as an increasingly necessary (and interesting) challenge in today’s world. This is a choice I have made. I have, however, put activities like FaceBook aside and have become much more choosey about time spent on the internet.

My parting comment and a sentiment which I hope my Grandkids will continue to heed: “So many good books; so little quality time!”

A New Workplace and a Changing Society; The “Two Faces” of Technology

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Those of you who have been following my blog for some time may be aware of my background as a Silicon Valley (California) electrical engineer (retired). You may also realize from previous posts that I view technology as a dual-edged sword which can cut both ways – for good and for bad. On the “good” side of the ledger, are the obvious benefits, both real and potential, that technology brings to our lives….and to our spirits when judiciously used. The “bad” side will be determined by us individually and collectively as we merge technology ever more into our lives while struggling to reconcile it with our basic humanity. Our decisions on both the personal and the societal levels regarding technology’s role will affect us immensely. In fact, we have now reached a pivotal point in that process.

The “Middle-Class” As We Have Known It
 Is An Endangered Species!

Reading a book review in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal inspired this post, but only because the subject has long been on my mind. The book is titled Average Is Over and purportedly states that American society is headed toward a dual-class reality with an elite 10-15% at the top and the rest in an “underfunded future of lower economic expectations, shantytowns and an endless diet of beans” according to the reviewer. Those at the top will be the high-achievers, the self-motivated ones who largely embrace technology and can adapt to its demands. Those at the bottom will be everyone else! In essence, the middle-class as we have known it disappears.

It appears to me that we are headed in that direction – due largely to the influence of technology. Long-gone is the widespread need for unskilled labor as exemplified by a union worker in Detroit whose only responsibility was bolting-on automobile rear-view mirrors for $25 an hour and excellent benefits. Replacing legions of such workers, today, is a two-tiered, much smaller team of workers: robotics engineers who design robots to do such jobs and tech-skilled workers who can monitor and maintain the complex machinery of the robots themselves. The ultimate cost-savings in high-volume production lines such as those in the automotive industry is staggering – and quality improves as well.

Many former hourly factory workers find themselves unemployed today; their prospects for good wages and benefits in today’s society look bleak – unless they have the motivation, capability, and opportunity to go back to school and acquire the higher-tech skills that today’s workplace needs, indeed demands.

Henry Ford pioneered mass-production with his Model T Ford assembly lines beginning in 1908. The new methods he introduced were based initially more on common-sense logistics (time-motion studies) than on advanced manufacturing technologies, yet the die was cast and manufacturing along with the workplace has been changing ever since. Tom Friedman, the noted columnist, commentator, and author has written extensively on the evolving workplace and its effects on society. He would be the first to endorse the importance of technology in the workplace.

Despite technology’s rapid pace, it has taken a while for us to reach this point in time, the point at which technology’s promise of cheaper mass-produced goods of superior quality and functionality critically impacts the employment fabric of our society. Even though we have just now arrived at that critical juncture, technology has had an evolving influence on product manufacturing and the work force for some time. The semiconductor industry has relied on very sophisticated production automation almost from its inception some 50 years ago.

When I was designing computer disk-drives in the late 1990’s, here in Silicon Valley, California, I spent time at our factory in Japan. Even then, the automated assembly lines could turn out 10,000 of those technically-sophisticated memory storage devices a day! When you scanned the vast assembly-line area, you saw only an occasional human being visible over the humming conveyer lines. Aside from the economies of manufacturing such volumes, the argument is easily made that robotics was the only alternative to insure the uniform accuracy and quality required.

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One humorous aspect of our factory in Japan was the way disk-drive assemblies were transported to other stations within the plant. As we walked through the factory isles, we had to be constantly aware of the little “robot-pallets” passing us by, busily moving themselves (except for computer control) from station to station within the plant by following a flat metallic strip on the floor. It was intriguing, almost comedic to watch a robot-pallet turn into a shipping area with a load of completed drives and begin to unload them onto the shipping racks for packaging – totally without direct human assistance! All of this took place over fifteen years ago; manufacturing technology has certainly not stood still since then!

Charlie Chaplin made a prophetic, satirical feature film in 1935 called Modern Times in which he acts and satirically spoofs the onset of the mechanical age of manufacturing and its effect on workers. The film has many funny and outlandish situations which bring to mind the robot pallets in Japan which I described. Who’s in control here!

The Reality Today

This is the reality of our industrial society today. I am led to believe that the middle-class in this country is an endangered species and that the impact of technology will continue to grow. The increasing flow of capital into the most affluent 15% of our population will increase unabated. I see this as very troubling. I cannot envision a happy and economically successful society in which 15% live an affluent lifestyle while the other 85% experience something well-below the heretofore accepted middle-class existence in this country. In addition to the great job opportunities open to the technically proficient in the society, there will be opportunities for talented craftsmen, accomplished musicians and artists, and others with significant niche skills to do well.

The vast numbers of hourly workers being put out of work by automation technology today along with future job-seekers who are shut out by the demands of a technical education will have a difficult road ahead. So will the rest who are not sufficiently motivated to retrain – to embrace technology, or to excel in the niche skills mentioned above. Gone forever are the formerly ubiquitous 8-5 time-clock, union factory jobs which paid well in wages and benefits.

A Caution: Retirement for Future Employees

Generous government, union, and private-sector pensions are now declining or non-existent. That is a problem middle-class hourly workers often did not need to face. Even talented, future tech-industry professionals who can look forward to jobs with good salaries face a three-tiered problem: Overseas outsourcing, technical obsolescence, and retirement. It is very difficult to keep pace with technology, and future engineering candidates would be well-advised to prepare to refresh their knowledge-base several times over during their careers. To remain gainfully employed with a good salary after age sixty in today’s engineering environment is, indeed, quite a feat – and there never were many company pensions for retired engineers.

Life will be harder for most, and I indeed worry about the society as a whole. Are we ready and capable to deal with the situation? Don’t count on Congress to be of much help; the outcome is going to be determined by choices made at the grass-roots level, person by person.

Author/historian David McCullough has noted that people have been claiming for decades that the country was going to hell, and the fact that it seems so now to some people is nothing new. However, I do think the country and its society will be quite different in the years to come due to the prevailing winds. Fasten your seat-belts.