50 thoughts on turning 50: #12 Technology doesn’t always win

A visit to my local used bookstore netted me a few titles to keep me busy. For a little while, anyway.

A recent visit to my local used bookstore netted me a few titles to keep me busy. For a little while, anyway.

I heard a happy statistic a few weeks ago that while sales of adult ebook sales were up 4.8% through August of 2013 to $647.7 million, sales of hardcover books over the same period were up 11.5% to $778.6 million over the same period.

I’m not a fan of ebooks. I like real books. I like smelling the paper and reading at the beach. I like pulling out a book I read years ago and finding pencil marks in the margins and fingerprints on the pages. I just can’t seem to fall in love with an electronic device; there’s romance in books. My whole life – 50 years now – I’ve been reading books, and lots of them.

Surprise: I’m not a fan of technology.

In fact, when people assure me that this or that technological advance is going to eliminate something – like ebooks putting bookstores out of business and making paper book printing obsolete – I only laugh.

I’m 50 years old now, people. I know a thing or two about technology and life.

Back in the 80s I was The World’s Worst Bank Teller. This was before I went on to become The World’s Worst Promotions Specialist, The World’s Worst Small Business Owner, The World’s Worst Mother, and The World’s Worst Veterinary Office Receptionist (just to name a few of my career choices).

It was also, believe it or not, before  ATMs were as prevalent as they are today.

ATMs were predicted to do away with human bank tellers.

ATMs were predicted to do away with human bank tellers.

The Automated Teller Machine was developed in the 1960s and started being used around the world in the 1970s. But it was in the late 1980s, when I was a teller, that the push was really on to replace actual bank tellers with machines.

I remember each of us taking turns standing in the lobby, offering to help customers make deposits and withdrawals using this high tech cash dispenser. There was a learning curve, but before long people were bypassing the long lines to conduct simple transactions, like getting cash or depositing their paycheck.

The future, the financial prognosticators spoke with certainty, would soon find people doing all of their banking by machine. Human tellers and employees, we were assured, would become a thing of the past, or at the most relegated to a few select hours of branch availability a week to accept mortgage applications, process loan papers and make sure the machines were working.

I left banking only after a few years – it was gently suggested I find a career path that didn’t involve adding numbers – but I never forgot those dire predictions. Because, as it turns out, they were wrong. In fact, quite the opposite happened.

While ATM use is daily use for most Americans, banking didn’t go completely “humanless”. Banks actually found people using their services more. They kept or extended office hours. They relegated the mundane tasks of depositing and withdrawing to the money machines, but found other ways to connect with their customers, in person, in the office, on the phone, and online.

Human bank tellers and other employees didn’t go away after all.

It was the same dire prediction when the Video Cassette Recorder debuted for mass consumer use. The motion picture industry predicted doom as consumers took their viewing choices to their homes. No one would ever go to the movies again, they wailed. Speaking before Congressional hearings in 1982, then Motion Picture Association of America head Jack Valenti said, “I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone.”

In other words, death to the movies.

But instead, there was a rise in people going to the movie theater. Hollywood produced more movies. In 1985, there were 470 movies released with a gross box office of about $3.7 million dollars. In 2013, there were 686 movies released, with a gross box office of about $10.9 million.  Add in DVD sales, Netflix and other streaming sites and the reality is that the motion picture industry benefitted from this new technology.

Trivia sidebar: The #1 movie at the box office in 1985? “Back To The Future”. In 2013? “Catching Fire”. Interesting, isn’t it, how our views on the future have gone from rosy technology to post-apocalyptic doom? But I digress.

Yes, technology makes things easier, but it never replaces humans. It might change the way we interact with each other, but in the end, people like people. They like doing their banking with a human. They like going to a theater with other people to share a theatrical experience.

And they like books. And bookstores. While big chain stores are struggling and going under, there’s a backlash rise in independent stores. The indie bookseller has adapted to the marketplace, and small stores have become havens for book lovers, complete with cafes, gift shops and other things that draw those of us who love a good mystery, a cozy chair and a cat wandering amongst the stacks of hardcovers and paperbacks.

Technology changes the world, but we adapt with it to maintain our personal connections.

My prediction? With the rise in social media and the electronic clutter that overwhelms us on a daily basis, we’ll start sending each other letters and cards again. You know, get out a pen and a piece of paper and write a letter. Put a stamp on it. Give it to the mailman. Go to the mailbox and take out envelopes and open them up and think, “How nice! Aunt Gloria sent me  birthday card!” Check back with me on my 100th birthday and see if I was right.

This post is part of my series, “50 thoughts on turning 50″. Read more here.

 

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