TITLE: "I Blame Computers." AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 19, 2010 4:48 PM DESC: ----- BODY: I spent the weekend in southwestern Ohio at Hueston Woods State Park lodge with a bunch of friends from my undergrad days. This group is the union of two intersecting groups of friends. I'm a member of only one but was good friends with the two main folks in the intersection. After over twenty years, with close contact every few years, we remain bonded by experiences we shared -- and created -- all those years ago. The drives to and from the gathering were more eventful than usual. I was stopped by a train at same railroad crossing going both directions. On the way there, a semi driver intentionally ran me off the road while I was passing him on the right. I don't usually do that, but he had been driving in the left lane for quite a while, and none too fast. Perhaps I upset him, but I'm not sure how. Then, on the way back, I drove through one of the worst rainstorms I've encountered in a long while. It was scarier than most because it hit while I was on a five-lane interstate full of traffic in Indianapolis. The drivers of my hometown impressed me by slowing down, using their hazard lights, and cooperating. That was a nice counterpoint to my experience two days earlier. Long ago, my mom gave me the New Testament of the Bible on cassette tape. (I said it was long ago!) When we moved to a new house last year, I came across the set again and have had it in pile of stuff to handle ever since. I was in an unusual mood last week while packing for the trip and threw the set in the car. On the way to Ohio, I listened to Gospel of Matthew. I don't think I have ever heard or read an entire gospel in one setting before. After hearing Matthew, I could only think, "This is a hard teaching." (That is a line from another gospel, by John, the words and imagery of which have always intrigued me more than the other gospels.) When I arrived on Friday, I found that the lodge did offer internet service to the rooms, but at an additional cost. That made it easier for me to do what I intended, which was to spend weekend off-line and mostly away from the keyboard. I enjoyed the break. I filled my time with two runs (more on them soon) and long talks with friends and their families. Ironically, conversation late on Saturday night turned to computers. The two guys I was talking with are lawyers, one for the Air Force at Wright Patterson Air Force Base and one for a U.S. district court in northern Indiana. Both lamented the increasing pace of work expected by their clients. "I blame computers," said one of the guys. In the old days, documents were prepared, duplicated, and mailed by hand. The result was slow turnaround times, so people came to expect slow turnaround. Computers in the home and office, the Internet, and digital databases have made it possible to prepare and communicate documents almost instantly. This has contributed to two problems they see in their professional work. First, the ease of copy-and-paste has made it even easier to create documents that are bloated or off-point. This can be used to mislead, but in their experience the more pernicious problem is lack of thoughtfulness and understanding. Second, the increased speed of communication has led to a change in peoples' expectations about response. "I e-mailed you the brief this morning. Have you resolved the issue this morning?" There is increasing pressure to speed up the work cycle and respond faster. Fortunately, both report that these pressures come only from outside. Neither the military brass nor the circuit court judges push them or their staff to work faster, and in fact encourage them to work with prudence and care. But the pressure on their own staff from their clients grows. Many people lash out and blame "computers" for whatever ills of society trouble them. These guys are bright, well-read, and thoughtful, and I found their concerns about our legal system to be well thought out. They are deeply concerned by what the changes mean for the cost and equitability of the justice the system can deliver. The problem, of course, is not with the computers themselves but with how we use them, and perhaps with how they change us. For me as a computer scientist, that conversation was a reminder that writing a program does not always solve our problems, and sometimes it creates new ones. The social and cultural environments in which programs operate are harder to understand and control than our programs. People problems can be much harder to solve than technical problems. Often, when we solve technical problems, we need to be prepared for unexpected effects on how people work and think. -----