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The Tentacle


July 24, 2003

Going Forward Or Standing Still?

Alan Imhoff

Why are we headed so fast to get to where we have already been? Sound like a "Back to the Future" scenario?

Having spent an entire 32-year career in the telecommunications business, going from Selectric typewriters and teletype machines, carbon paper and data networks moving at 9.6 Kbps through to the marvels of today, I have been wondering if we have really progressed or are just treading water.

I lived through the pronouncements of a paperless society 20 years ago - right! Have you ever seen the warehouses of the storage companies for businesses who need to retain their "paperless" environment, not to mention the wonderful shredding services that come right to your door.

I suffered through the agonies of divestiture to see the wonderful array of gadgets appear to make our lives easier and better - right. It has been a marvel to me to stand in line at the supermarket listening to half the conversation of whether to buy a half-pound of bologna or Virginia baked ham.

As we propel ourselves along in this the first decade of the 21st Century, have we stopped recently to ask ourselves is everyone and everything keeping pace with us?

I have managed to come this far on a journey without ever having to use an ATM teller machine. I don't own a cell phone nor do I have a pager anymore. You see I retired five years ago from a job that created a nervous twitch on my right side, just above the belt line where my pager resided almost 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I vowed never again.

I am an outcast in today's society, am I missing something?

I am busier today than when I "worked" for a living. I still am in contact with all my family members (only one has a cell phone); none have a pager and only one computer with Internet access. It is a little inconvenient at times, but our lives are not shattered.

Could it be that we are being passed by the information age with instant access to a wealth of data to make extremely complex decisions, like calling each other to determine what movie to see tonight?

If I seem a bit cynical, you're right, I am.

I have been part of the new age to bring more information to bear in decision-making processes for a host of businesses and government, yet what I see today makes me chuckle. Why in this age of "instant" anything, does it take a local governmental agency over three months to answer a simple letter?

Could it be that we expect government and many businesses to be like us? Like when we seek to find out the mysteries of tomorrow's lunch - they decided on bologna by the way - we want answers to complex questions - now!

We want Route 85 near Crestwood Boulevard to be fixed - now! Yet in spite of all the advances in engineering, construction techniques, etc. we still have to wait 10 years.

We want the best for our school age children, but despite tremendous diversity in curriculum, the introduction of computers in classroom, and some really neat advances in teaching techniques - like interactive video and PowerPoint, we have to resort to opening high schools a half hour early to save $650,000 in transportation costs.

These are but three recent examples of what we used to call in my business, "legacy systems." Ways of doing business that are "as old as the hills." Ways of doing business because "we have always done it that way."

Legacy systems are like the ocean liner heading full-steam in mid-ocean only to receive a message that it needs to turn around immediately. Yeah, right! You're going to tell me you can get it to "turn on a dime?" But isn't that what we expect today?

This movement towards instant communication perhaps is causing some fundamental problems with how we make decisions. We seem to want to "act now," or we go to the other extreme and study things to death. How many of you have sat in on the interminable meeting that droned on forever and didn't accomplish anything?

What has happened to the art of simple discussion for discussion's sake? What has happened to good old simple research of the facts, not just a compilation of Internet references, but honest to goodness study? Then a good old discussion before arriving at a decision.

One of the areas I teach in my college computer class is the advances of technology, where it has been and where it might be going, for instance, the "smart" refrigerator. A device designed with many of a personal computer's component melded with a bar code reader that will keep track of what you use from the refrigerator.

By tracking the number of gallons of milk you consume, using infrared sensors, it could detect when you will need the next gallon of milk. With a predetermined account at one of your favorite food stores, the refrigerator could automatically place an order for your next gallon of milk and have it delivered to the refrigerator. (That's through an exterior locked door directly into the unit. Yes, this is really true.)

If we can be so smart to design devices like this, why can't we come up with a better way to have people live where they can work or vice versa? Why can't we design a public transit system where all that is needed is a credit card-like pass that would allow you to drive the toll road (read Dulles Greenway) to a parking lot (any monthly pass system will do) for a high speed automated light rail system (similar to Metro) where you could transfer to a bus at the distant end?

All the technology in the world won't do us any good if we keep holding on to our "legacy systems". We need to make government wake up to the 21st Century so that it doesn't take 10 to 20 years to get a road built, or have to start school at 7:30 A. M. because of busing schedules, or take three months to answer a letter.



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