?I have this terrible concern,? said Albert Gherkin. ?It comes to me in the still of the night.? I stared at him. I have great difficulty picturing Albert in the still of the night. ?What is your worry, Albert?? I asked. ?Am I part of a long-term trend,? he said, ?or just a statistical blip??
I have learned to ponder Albert Gherkin?s remarks. I now realise that blips and trends form one of those fundamental divisions of the universe. In fact, I have been applying blip/trend analysis to this whole business of computing. And I?ve found it difficult to remain impartial.
Time and again, what I?d hoped would be a kindly trend, like worshipping technicians, was just a blip in the grand scheme of things. Whereas so many of those nasty developments, like standardised packages and user-friendliness which my programming cronies assured me were just blips, seem to be taking over in a most trend-like fashion.
But back to the question. The invention we all thought was a computing engine has become a communicating engine, and has now flowered as a mobile-controlled laptop for Albert. Is it a blip or trend? The telephone and the computer have merged to become a teleputer.
But instead of forming a giant, amorphous, computation engine, people have preferred to use this giant Web for chatting. We now use the computer for all those things we used to do by engaging other human beings in conversation.
But what use are we making of these facilities that will promote teleputing from blip to trend status? I dipped into that famous book, The Way Ahead, for clues. I found its author, Mr Gates, promising all of us what he now enjoys ? a remote game of bridge with friends located in Boston, Philadelphia and Washington. But does he feel remote participation really captures the enjoyment? If the answer is, ?No, but it?s a good second best when you can?t have the real thing?, then there?s a second question: ?Why can?t you have the real thing?? Has the need for business efficiency forced us to relinquish human contact? I tried to put this question to Albert.
I left a message on his voicemail. He never replied. I tried emailing him. I got ?message tray full?. Foolishly, I wrote him a letter. Back came, ?Mr Gherkin thanks you for your letter. It has been passed to [??], who will investigate your complaint and supply you with a thorough reply by [??]. The spaces were left blank. Using the company phone to contact him was a last resort.
?If you know the extension you want, please dial it now,? instructed the message on the phone. I dialled. ?For the stock position on any of our products, press 1,? it replied. I hung on grimly ? there was a human being in there somewhere. Finally, the choices ran out. ?Hold for reception,? said the voice, still full of cheery helpfulness.
?We are sorry there is no one at reception to help you at the moment. Please leave your phone number and we?ll get back to you. Alternatively, you can ring the emergency service at our Shepton Mallet branch?.
?Emergency service,? said a voice. ?Can you put me through to ?? I began. ?You are held in a queue,? said the voice triumphantly. ?Please hold. You will be answered in approximately [crackle] minutes.?
However long the approximation turned out to be, I realised it would end in tears ? something along the lines of: ?You have reached Gherkin?s voicemail!?
As I put the phone down, it suddenly came to me that the age of communication is about non-communication. All this computer-enabled rationalisation and outsourcing means just one thing? there isn?t anyone left out there.
I did the only thing possible. Disguised as a laptop salesman, I called at Albert?s office and got to see him immediately. I told him I had the answer to his question.
?This is no blip, Albert,? I said. ?It?s a full-blooded trend,? I explained. ?The end of human contact as we know it. What sort of solution is this for a small planet??
Albert smiled at this recent change in the size of our planet. ?Small,? he said, ?but perfectly uninformed.?
Leapfrogged again, Grindley.
Kit Grindley is Price Waterhouse professor of systems automation at the London School of Economics.
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