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Column: What has the digital age done for me?

  • (Dreamstime)



For the Valley News
Saturday, March 23, 2019

I am reading more about the internet and enjoying it less. About how the internet tracks and predicts my behavior. How artificial intelligence may know more about me than I do myself. Have I made a Faustian bargain?

This is a question which we’ve asked ourselves ever since the first general purpose computer was built in 1945.

To clarify my own muddled thinking, I recently asked about 50 friends, family members and work acquaintances about their lifetime experiences with the digital world. I was surprised at what I learned.

No one I know is a Luddite. Almost all feel that computers and the internet have made them much more productive in work and life.

That may not mean they are happier. It does mean that, in ways important to them, the digital world has been very beneficial.

My 50 people are, as the researchers would say, a skewed sample of American society. Virtually all are college graduates and hold down middle-class jobs or did before retiring. Almost all are white. They disproportionately live in the Upper Valley or elsewhere in Vermont or New Hampshire.

About a third were, like me, born before 1950. I used a slide rule through graduate school. I bought my first personal computer when I was about 35, before computer retail stores opened. I did not work in a job that depended daily on computer use until my mid-40s.

And yet I was struck when I read the results of my online survey to discover that people like me, baby boomers (born between about 1946-1964) had pretty much the same experiences with and attitudes about digital life has did Generation Xers (1965-1980) and millennials (1981-1996). We have collectively absorbed computers into our lives to about the same penetrating depth.

Impact on work

Most of the baby boomers told me that, over their careers, computers expanded work in their field. Some saw their sectors consolidate and their opportunities shrink. For them it was not necessarily apparent that the computer had done the dirty work.

A personal financial planner told me that planners no longer have a monopoly on financial information, which posed both a challenge and an opportunity. “The personal financial adviser may have been the only source for certain information in the past,” he said. “Now, raw information is readily accessible. The growth in our sector is the need to help people sort through all of the data and identify what information is relevant to the individual.”

A number of the older set are in mature or declining industries. Writers find fewer publications to write for. A former account executive in top-quality office furniture said the demand for big conference rooms has shrunk: “Construction, architectural woodworking, seems to have moved from small independent companies (30 to 40 people) to larger firms with more regimented (less custom) products.”

Some people born in the 1970s (including my three children) learned to program in middle age.

Younger respondents, those born in the 1980s and 1990s, were far more likely to work at jobs specifically designed around computers.

Personal productivity

Despite these mixed experiences with work opportunities, my respondents revealed an almost universally positive assessment about how the computer, and the internet especially, have increased their productivity at work.

An oil executive wrote me: “The instantaneous and broad-based spread of digital business information means that it is possible for anyone, anywhere, to have a global map of oil production and shipping data.” One educator reports more data collection for evaluation purposes, more immediate communication, less mail and fewer phone calls. Another teacher points to the expansion of distance learning, “changing the business model” for the teacher as well as student.

An author of many books says, “I can write papers and book a lot faster now.”

Consumer experience

The Home Depot was founded in 1979. The first Staples store opened in 1986. But Amazon, founded in 1994, quickly eclipsed the big-box stores. As of 2018, Amazon is the largest internet company by revenue in the world, and the second-largest employer in the United States.

Together, the box stores and the internet combined to ruin many local retailers. Between 1990 and 2017, the number of book stores fell by 46 percent, hardware stores by 44 percent, and newsstands by 61 percent. The big-box stores are brought up in the conversation almost as an afterthought.

“Purchasing has become easier for two reasons,” a retired health care manager told me. “First, you can do a lot of comparison research on the computer. Second you can buy online without having to go to a store. Deliveries are quick and reliable. Returns are fairly painless.”

“It happened very quickly,” an engineer in her late 30s observed. “I never liked the idea of online shopping, and then suddenly I was ordering all necessities online (shampoo, dish detergent, presents for people). There were far more options and cheaper prices. Now, I’m making an effort to stop online shopping and only use it for specialty items (certain teaching items I can’t buy in stores, or specific items for the kids).”

The online experience extends beyond conventional consumer products. A librarian said that online access has been particularly helpful in caring for a spouse with a chronic illness.

Social media

At age 66 I found my future mate on Match.com. People have mixed feelings about whether they like using social networks. For everyone who said that Facebook and social media networks enriched their social life, another is down on them. Young and old are alike in their ambivalence.

One Vermonter observed that it allows her to keep up with friends and family with whom she doesn’t get face-to-face time. “It can be awkward when one sees an old friend after having not seen them for a long time, and you realize you know all sorts of things they’ve been doing without having them tell you.” Now that she follows their lives on social media. she said, “The traditional ‘So what have you been up to lately?’ doesn’t apply as well anymore.”

A real estate professional said that, among friends, it “doesn’t enrich nor reduce face to face. It’s entirely its own thing.” For work friends, social media replaces time that would have otherwise been spent together.

Security

None of the participants expressed concern about how they might be manipulated by the algorithms of Facebook, the dating sites or the retailers, which are designed to influence attention and personal decisions unobtrusively. But I found an all-around queasiness about the dangers to which computers exposed them. No one was without worries, yet no one said the risks were enough to disengage from the computer. “Security is beyond my scope,” a retired salesperson said. “I know I should worry more, though. Privacy seems to have become an anachronism.”

The CEO of an internet marketing firm who lives in Woodstock said, “I feel more connected and better positioned for good work because of the technology — but I do not feel as secure. The amount of personally identifiable information on me that is made available through technology, and the lack of perfect security around that data, continues to challenge my using it more substantially.”

What have I gained?

The digital age has not yet pervaded all aspects of my life, or those of others. Consider the home. Of the 50 participants, only 11 said the computer “greatly affects” their home life, compared with 43 who acknowledged it influence on work and 35 on shopping.

Health care remains for me an almost entirely nondigital experience, except for a web portal that I’m slow to adapt to. And I like that my providers share an electronic medical record.

I make a point of buying books at independent bookstores, and of shopping in West Lebanon stores. I don’t have — yet — a virtual assistant at home, which I think is a harbinger of a new age of artificial intelligence.

But a striking thing about my conversations is how intensely people feel about the increase in their personal productivity, and this positive glow flows into their consumer lives. In sum, they say they have flourished, thanks to computers.

A retired manufacturing executive in the Upper Valley said that the internet opened up a world of learning in retirement, “enabling me to study philosophy, anthropology, stoicism and more through online access of papers written by scholars.”

Perhaps this deeply felt sense of flourishing is a clue to how college-educated middle-class lives, such as mine, have decoupled from the rest of the population, such as those without college degrees. We work with Excel and use Google Docs. Broadband access is higher among the college educated. Do we work and play in a virtual gated community?

And, are we waiting for more revelations, such as that of the Cambridge Analytica data scandal, to ignite our concern about surveillance and hidden persuasion?

Peter Rousmaniere, of Woodstock, blogs about immigration issues at www.workingimmigrants.com.