Are you wondering why this particular market downturn is so severe? It's because of a buildup of resentment toward technology in general. We can't deny that everyone will have to get back on the tech pony eventually, but people seem to get some sort of sick enjoyment from watching technology companies suffer through a slowdown. After all, the same companies made us suffer with inferior products that were overpriced and poorly supported. But the public apathy goes even deeper, because technology has not delivered on its promises. When things crank up again and new promises are made, technology had better deliver--or else.
To understand how technology has betrayed society, just look around at some of the broad promises and see how they were handled.
Let's start with saving money and banking. Computers, as far as banking is concerned, are designed to replace people and save money. No longer do you have rooms full of people poring over the general ledger. Automated teller machines have systematically replaced tellers. Online banking minimizes the need for physical banks. So what do the banks do? They charge extra for such services. What kind of thinking is this? It began with the early electronic banking systems that had a fee attached. In fact, you were doing most of the accounting work and data input yourself. The banks should have been paying you to use the service. But instead, they charged extra. Then came the ATM, which put thousands of tellers out of work and saved banks a fortune. So what do banks do? They charge a dollar or more per ATM transaction. It's incredible. It's a betrayal. And you wonder why people hate banks.
The point is that you can find plenty of companies that are saving money by using technology, but how many manage to pass the savings along to you? From all appearances, the savings don't even go to the employees, who are laid off at the drop of a hat while the ceo takes home a bonus. Though not every ceo is gouging the shareholders, too many are doing so in a noticeable way. Meanwhile, average Americans sense some sort of deep corruption in the system. Hence, they stop buying products. Or hasn't anyone noticed?
And look at the promises of the Internet. What a slew of doozies. It's the new economy, they say. There is no question that a lot of things have changed because of the Internet; we can easily get software online and look up information like never before. But let's look at some of the unfulfilled promises.
One thing that was promoted was the ability to get breaking news faster than you could from a newspaper. This quickly deteriorated into a race to see which online publication would be the first to print an Associated Press or Reuters story that was pulled off the wire service and that all the radio stations had already broadcast an hour earlier. Using the Internet for breaking online news that would "compete with cnn" presupposed that some of the services would actually have reporters and writers. None do. With the exception of technology publishers such as Ziff Davis Media (the parent of PC Magazine), which cover specialized material, everyone uses the same wire services. The hard-news folks consist of the Associated Press, The New York Times, and very few others--none of which are Web-oriented. So hot breaking news on the Internet consists of unreliable amateur reports posted in discussion groups.
And let's never overlook technology's greatest betrayal. We are told convincingly that technology and computers will save us time, make things easier, and improve our lives. In fact, technology makes things worse. If you were the type of person who liked to be busy, then you became even busier. But if you were miserable, you became more miserable. I got into computers because I was disorganized. I am now more disorganized. Years ago, someone called the computer a "brain amplifier." Indeed it is. But the brain does more than just think. It's in control of everything. So whatever it does poorly is also amplified. Look at the social types who went from sewing circles to an addiction to chat rooms. Casual flirts are now doing cybersex. Simple letter writing has become e-mail hell. Where is the time saving? Where is the improvement in quality of life?
There is no end in sight, so the market downturn should give us time for reflection. It's nice not to be upgrading, at least for now. That won't last. We'll be back on the treadmill soon. Enjoy the moment, if you can.
You can find plenty of companies that are saving money by using technology, but how many manage to pass the savings along to you?
More on the Web: Read John C. Dvorak's column every Monday at www.pcmag.com. You can reach him at PCmag@dvorak.org.