TITLE: "I Blame Computers."
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: July 19, 2010 4:48 PM
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
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
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.