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Terry McLaughlin: Don’t use tech to rearrange your life

Terry McLaughlin
Columnist

Harvey Mackay, the author of “Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive,” tells a story about how he bought a small envelope company in 1960, a time when he could not imagine a world where people just turned on a computer and clicked a button to pay their electric bill, balance their bank statement, or send a message to a friend or colleague. He could not imagine a time when rather than signing a contract and dropping it in the mail, a contract could be signed digitally and returned electronically within minutes. He had not anticipated the future, and neither had many of his competitors. Had he read Daniel Burrus’ book “The Anticipatory Organization,” he might have considered investing in the developing computer industry.

“Organizations of all types and sizes have traditionally relied on their ability to react as quickly as possible to shifting challenges, the demands of the marketplace and other types of disruptions,” Burros says in his book. “That’s often referred to as agility.” But he asserts that agility alone is not enough. “Would you rather have merely reacted as quickly as possible as change took place,” he asks, “or anticipated it and crafted well-thought-out plans to take advantage of its game-changing opportunities?”

Burris tells about the introduction of the iPhone, saying that when reporters asked the CEO of Blackberry Ltd. if he was worried about a threat to his business, he responded that he didn’t think anyone would want to watch a video on a phone and could not imagine the appeal of such a small screen. That may seem laughable to us today since, as of November 2018, more than 2.2 billion iPhones had been sold worldwide.

When you look to the future with an anticipatory mindset, rather than focusing on what your competitors are doing, you look for those things that are not being done. Only four companies that were on the Fortune 500 top 10 list twenty years ago remained on the list last year. Apple and Amazon are on the current list, but they were not there ten years ago. Computers, cellphones, and bookstores existed during that time frame, but many of them did not anticipate the looming trends, and therefore were unable to adapt rapidly enough to prosper.

In Harvey Mackay’s example, envelopes seemed to be a safe commodity in 1960. Then fax machines (remember those?) emerged and created a threat to paper transactions and mailings, followed by emailing, then texting, then automatic bill paying. All of those technological advances, followed by the decline of direct mail and the popularity of online purchasing, cut further into the envelope and paper industry, forcing it to reinvent itself time and time again.

But Daniel Burrus emphasizes that whether in business or social transactions “all the technology in the world is secondary to interaction between people — constructive, trust-based interaction. Without that, what good is the most amazing technology?”

Technology is both a curse and a blessing in today’s society. We can accomplish, with amazing speed and accuracy, things we never imagined even ten years ago. Production and communication can occur at an accelerated pace. We can furnish an entire house with the click of a button, with everything delivered directly to our door. We can plan an entire vacation — air travel, hotel, rental car, dinner reservations, sightseeing — booked and paid for on our laptop computer without leaving home. We can communicate with someone halfway around the world in real time using some version of Skype or Facetime. We can choose to be constantly “connected” — but at the same time, we can use technology as an excuse to isolate ourselves.

On Christmas day in 2015, a visitor from the Midwest was walking along Sunset Cliffs in San Diego. I attended elementary school in this area, and know first-hand that the view of the ocean from Sunset Cliffs is breathtaking. Rather than absorbing the beauty of the day and his surroundings, this visitor’s attention was directed entirely on his smart phone. In this picture-perfect location, he chose to be in the virtual world, rather than the physical one. As a result, this 33-year-old father of one walked over the edge of the cliff and fell sixty feet to his death.

Fifty-eight years before this tragedy occurred, Swiss playwright and novelist Max Frisch (1911-1991) observed the patterns and types of behavior that would eventually result in texting while driving, or walking off a cliff while staring at a hand-held device. In his 1957 novel “Homo Faber” Frisch describes technology as “the knack of arranging the world so that we need not experience it.”

We are just beginning a new year and a new decade. Technological advances are occurring at an astronomically rapid rate. While there is no reason not to take advantage of the time and labor-saving devices, programs and “apps” available to us, we should all make a focused and dedicated effort to experience the real world and the real people in our lives. 2020 vision can be achieved by looking up from the phone or device in your hand and absorbing and celebrating the beautiful landscape and the beautiful people right in front of you. Delight in the real world — don’t use technology to “arrange the world so that you need not experience it!”

Terry McLaughlin, who lives in Nevada City, writes a twice monthly column for The Union. Write to her at terrymclaughlin2016@gmail.com.


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