Sunday, November 21, 2010

Kicking the Habits

I type primarily with my two index fingers. I’ve gotten pretty fast this way, after 30+ years of practice. There are many days when I think back to my sophomore year of high school and my boring typing class, wishing I had paid more attention to the QWERTY keys and finger exercises than the clock on the wall. At the time, I was filled with the hubris of youth and fairly confident that I would someday have a secretary (that’s what we used to call them in the 70s). All this typing would be done by someone else as I spoke the words. Why burn out on typing when typing would be obsolete in my lifetime? Now I use a keyboard and MS Word instead of a Smith Corona and carbon paper, but my preferred typing technique hasn’t changed.

As anyone reading this on the Internet already knows, times have changed. A mouse is now a necessity, not a nuisance, and rebooting doesn’t mean buying new shoes for Christmas. Times change, seemingly without effort, but our accumulated habits die hard. Technology marches on, and yet all we do is use it in our familiar, and sometimes inefficient ways.

As I watch employees deal with virtual information, I make note of their point of reference in the history through the window of word processing. I work with one individual who prints every email received so it can be filed and saved. Estimated year of birth is in the 1940s. Another younger co-worker copies each email into Word, and stores the file on the network, nicely labeled for future retrieval. She’s a product of the 50s. A third still younger co-worker does not print or re-copy the email. She drops and drags it directly into an Outlook sub-folder by category. She came of age in the early 70s. I am involved in a project identifying metatags within documents that will allow search by keyword through a range of documents, thereby eliminating the needs for the traditional file structures. Those born post-1980 will recognize the similarity to Google searching, and adjust their methods accordingly. My first employee example will continue to suffer the agony of a thousand paper cuts, but it works for her.  She's comfortable with her system.  Efficiency is in the eye of the beholder.

Advances in cellular phones follow this same generational pattern. We all know people who use cell phones for one thing – phone calls. We call these people “Ma’am”, or “Mister”. Some folks make calls, text and send emails. The youngest are making and sending videos and paying their bills (or charging purchases, since they have no money). We all have the same technology, but we adapt it to work within our own comfortable generational habits. We call this “change”. (Side Note: I love listening to my mom’s spoken name on her voice mail box for her cell phone, with her clearly articulating – “Mary Sherrier…press pound.” Makes me smile every time.)

It is in our nature to resist the unfamiliar and strange with something familiar and safe. It reminds me of the story about the introductory scene for the Star Trek TV series. As I hope you are all already familiar, during the opening credits after Jim Kirk’s legendary voice over (“Space – the final frontier…”), the Starship Enterprises rushes towards us, and then whooshes past as the iconic theme music plays. Smart people recognized that there is no “whoosh” in the vacuum of space, and deleted the ‘whoosh’ noise track…until focus groups demanded that the noise be added back in. Viewers couldn’t relate to the spaceship cruising past silently. The viewer’s point of reference was the atmosphere of the 3rd planet from the sun, so physical laws be damned. We need to hear that ship. We are products of the unique world and times in which we have lived, and we have yet to live in space.

My high school age daughter finds reading a book frustrating sometimes, because if she doesn’t know a word or concept, there’s no search bar on the page. She’ll adapt by reading nearby a laptop with Internet access. I am certain that my youngest daughter will not have that problem. She won’t use paper books, and search will be embedded in her chosen e-book device. That will be the normal world in which she will live, and she’ll develop her own habits to match that reality.

I won’t get there. I’ll continue to read paper books, read paper maps, and type with two fingers. I may never hire that secretary I expected some 30+ years ago, but perhaps voice recognition technology will finally achieve its promise and my grandchildren will be spared the boredom of high school typing (keyboarding) class.

Maybe we still send kids to high school today only out of habit.  After all, they seem to be set up to teach kids in assembly line fashion, to prepare them for jobs in factories with shifts and breaks.  Hasn't the world of work changed since that model was created?  Shouldn't we evolve the way in which we organize high school to match modern realities, instead of doing it the same way we did xx years ago?

Maybe we just need the break.

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