We Have Met the Ultimate Software and It Is Us

June 16, 1995|By ELLEN GOODMAN

BOSTON — Boston. -- I was a young reporter when I first started having the all-purpose generic nightmare suitable for anyone in the business of deadlines.

The night before I was sent out of town on any assignment, I would dream that I was trying, desperately and unsuccessfully, to transmit my story back to the office in time.

In one of those awful slow-mo sequences I would search for a telex machine in an unfamiliar town, try to track down a Western Union office where someone, somehow, would help me file my story.

It was like all those classic dreams in which you never get where you're going. In this case, my story never got to the newspaper.

I share this recurring dream, not to confess the mundane, boring, and colorless nature of my inner life, but because of the way I have continually reconstructed this nightmare over three decades of dazzling technological innovations.

Gradually, while I was, uh, sleeping, my subconscious was updated. The telex office that I couldn't locate turned into the Xerox telecopier that wouldn't perform properly. The telecopier then became a laptop computer with a phone attachment that didn't always attach.

That external modem turned into an internal modem with a program that failed me. Then came the fax machine that wouldn't fax and the printer that wouldn't print. You get the idea.

There were other variations on the nocturnal road to missed deadlines and professional disaster. My sleeping hours included hardware and software breakdowns, electronic and human failures. Sagas too varied and too arcane to describe.

But the central point was that the human being -- me -- and the human condition -- mine -- lagged behind the technology. My equipment is always state of the art, but my anxieties remained decidedly primitive.

This has made me conscious of the gap between the Third Wave and the brain wave, between the dizzying speed of technological evolution and the imperceptible pace of human evolution. The truth is that we expect people to be as new and improved as their tools. But it doesn't work out that way.

Consider the dismay of many who have finally wended their way onto the Internet. After spending money and mental energy, they look forward to meeting a whole different, better byte of people. Instead, they discover that the folks in their computerized chat groups have no more insight and wit than the people they talk to at the water cooler.

Remember when Lamar Alexander proudly declared himself to be ''the first presidential candidate who has announced his candidacy in cyberspace''? Who greeted him on the Internet? Some deep political thinker complaining, ''Lamar, you're a really slow typist.''

For many people, the Web is just another way to argue about O.J. And the most popular subject -- dare I say the hot topic -- in cyberspace is not philosophy or physics. It's sex. We have arrived at the megabyte millennium, using our sophisticated worldwide communications system to talk dirty to strangers.

New tech, same old anxieties. Not to mention neuroses.

The promise of the high-tech communications world was that we could do things faster, easier, better. But in some ways, the swiftness with which we can now communicate ideas also seems to mock the time it still takes to form them. It's like trying to write a haiku with a cursor blinking at you to hurry up.

A lawyer I know says that the fax machine has become her anxiety attacker. The clients who once wanted written answers to their questions by the next day's mail, now want them faxed. The time she had to think has been reduced to the time it takes to respond. And if the client's fax demands aren't insistent enough, consider the boss' e-mail.

This is not the first time that technology has left us in the dust. We've built cars that can travel at speeds that outstrip our control. Weapons that close arguments faster than we can figure them out. Factory lines that can assemble more goods than we can buy. Cable lines and satellite dishes that outstrip our capacity to fill them with something other than junk.

We are getting down to the difference between high-tech and basic human. There is no technological answer to a deadline anxiety. No quick fix for an emotion. We can get information faster than ever, but understanding is still acquired slowly. There is no hardware to help us digest information faster.

In an age that can deliver facts so quickly, the risk is that we're becoming impatient with time it takes to think things out. With our own lumbering, organic, limited and thoroughly human pace.

But no matter how often we update, no matter how many megabytes we add, it still takes as long as ever to form an insight or allay an anxiety. The good news: We're still the only software that won't become obsolete.

8, Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

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