Tuesday, February 16, 2010

The Emotion of Technology Change

I began my career in Information Technology back at Wright State University in 1974.  I didn't know anything about computers when I started, but a friend that was at WSU at the time showed me some programs and I was attracted by the logic, their math-like quality and the promise of avoiding a bunch of annoying liberal arts classes.  But little in my college experiences prepared me for how much emotions play in the technology field, either good or bad.  I've collected a few of those experiences in this article to share with you.  And if you're ever needing an ice-breaker when in the land of techies, just ask then about their most hair-raising experience.  You're sure to hear an earful and get the conversation going.  

I'll start with the worst feeling I've ever had.  I was new with a company back in 1980 and was working hard at getting something or another to work.  I was sitting at the master console of the company mainframe and realized I needed to stop any new work from starting in the system.  My brain instantly stormed two possibilities.  I could "purge the initiators" or I could "hold the queue".  Unfortunately my fingers interpreted an unfortunate combination of the two and decided to "purge the queue".  Before I thought twice my fingers had entered the requisite command and the system began to get rid of everything waiting to be run or the output of everything already complete.  When my brain figured this out a few microseconds too late, it was beyond stopping.  My stomach fell like a lead weight and my hands wanted to reach inside the console and take it back.  It was all I could to avoid vomiting on the computer room floor.  Fortunately I worked with some experienced, and nice, folks who had "been there and done that" and cut me a break.  I just wanted to hide.

On the other side of the emotional teeter-totter, one of most positively exhilarating experiences was back in the early days of the Internet.  Like most of us I  rode the modem speed curve as fast as I could.  Loved 2400 bps (bits per second), died and went to heaven when 9600 bps became reality and dreamed of the day that the promised 56,000 bps would actually work on my home PC.  The intellect could only imagine what a really high-speed connection would be like.  My time came during a trip to the IBM Raleigh North Carolina briefing center, where I stayed at the Washington Duke hotel.  I had heard they had a T-1 (1.544 megabits per second) to the Internet and couldn't wait to plug in and take off.  Yes, it was fast.  Yes, it was awesome.  But the surprising emotion was a sudden realization of the potential of the Internet.  Anything, anywhere, and in an instant.  It was as if, in my mind, the Berlin Wall had fallen that day.  I sat in my hotel room, my world changed, forever.

Some of the best emotions are deep-rooted in our past.  In 2009, one-quarter of Americans do not have a landline for telephone service and that number is increasing very day.  But I grew up with only a landline.  To date myself, when I was growing up my family had a six-digit phone number.  Crestview-3-8-3-2, which translated to 2-7-3-8-3-2 (the "C' and "r" in Crestview translating to "2-7").  And we had heavy rotary phones that rang like church bells and all the kids (five of us) would run to answer it when it rang.  And you actually had to walk over to where the phone was to use it.  Imagine that.  With that as a background we speed ahead to last year, 2009, when my wife and I, after moving from a "real landline" to a cable-provided "fake landline" the year before, decided to "cut the cord", eliminate the cordless phone and go with our cell phones and Skype.  In our heads, not a big deal.  In the emotions of our heart, a totally different deal.  A solemn call to Time-Warner.  The removal of the phones from each level of the house.  The feeling of being cut-off from the world.  Took awhile to feel whole again.  And we do miss the loud ringing on occasion.
Finally, I bought my first app-phone late last year, a Motorola Droid.  I've had an iPod Touch for a couple years, like the apps, but always feeling Wi-Fi needy.  I've had a love-fest with the Motorola RAZR since they first came out and have owned three.  But the Droid, again very unexpectedly, came with a stronger emotional response.  I was connected.  Always.  I could look it up.  Anywhere.  I took my stuff with me.  Anything at all.  Two email accounts, two calendars, music, videos, Twitter, Facebook, chats and messages.  Maps, alarm clock and directions, oh my!  Excited, sure, it was a dream come true.  But the unexpected emotion that swelled up was that of being overwhelmed.  Too much.  Too often.  Out of control.  Maybe some "dial tone therapy" would help. 


Andy said...

This was a great article!

Chip Overclock said...

A mere few decades ago I managed a system administration and network engineering group at Wright State University (this was after you graduated and moved on I believe). I sat down at the end of a term to remove all the temporary student accounts from a VAX750 running Berkeley UNIX.

Most of this work was automated with well-debugged scripts, but removing the disk files was just a simple matter logging in as root, going to the root directory, using the "rm" command, plus "-f" to force the removal of all files, and "-r" to recursively remove all subdirectories. I knew this would run for a while, so I cleverly ran it in the background using "&" so I could work on other stuff while it ran.

cd /; rm -rf class &

Have you ever noticed that the ampersand and the asterisk are right next to each other on the keyboard?

When I didn't immediately get a shell prompt back, I stared for a moment at what I had typed. Then I furiously began hitting the control-C trying to cancel the command.

It was too late. I had just wiped out the entire system, or at least enough of it that the OS and many of its critical utilities were all gone. I sighed, turned to one of my student assistants who had just wandered by to see what all the screaming and cursing was about, and said "Get the backup tapes."