Embrace technology, don’t fear it - East Valley Tribune: Business

Embrace technology, don’t fear it

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Posted: Sunday, October 19, 2003 3:01 am | Updated: 1:12 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

When the Tribune converted to computers a couple decades ago, someone stuck a cartoon on the wall showing a crusty editor pointing out a machine to a newsroom neophyte.

"It’s called a typewriter," the editor in the cartoon said. "People used to write stories on it."

Life imitates cartoons. Sort of. A couple weeks ago, a younger associate asked if I had actually worked on typewriters.

I suppose this should have made me feel old. It didn’t. What it did was make me think about how rapidly technology is changing, and how this makes for a challenging business and work environment.

Worker productivity in the United States is up dramatically the past few years. Many of those gains came in the retail sector, driven by improvements in inventory control through software. And one company is the leader in the field — Wal-Mart.

The retail company’s prowess in this area makes possible the perceived good of Wal-Mart — bargains for consumers — and the perceived evils of Wal-Mart — depressing wages, limiting worker security, driving out other stores.

The Internet of course has changed all sorts of business relationships. One profound area of change is between publicly traded companies and shareholders.

First, small investors have easier access to all sorts of information about a company. Secondly, they don’t have to wait until the annual shareholders meeting to voice displeasure.

Take Taser International chairman Phil Smith, who recently sold some stock in the Scottsdale company. Every one of his transactions is listed on the company’s Web site.

Some investors didn’t see this as a good sign. So they went to an Internet message board and pounded Smith for his sales.

A decade ago that scenario would have been difficult to imagine.

Here’s a couple examples that relate to telecommunications. There was a movie made in 1996, "The Substitute," in which the character played by Tom Berenger becomes convinced that students at a high school are dealing drugs. Part of his reasoning is a lot of the kids have cell phones.

By, say, 2000 that reasoning wouldn’t fly — even in an action movie that doesn’t rely too heavily on logic for its plot development. By then cell phone prices had fallen and were common among kids.

Then there’s WiFi, or wireless fidelity, that allows computer users to access the Internet without being tethered to a phone jack. About a year ago, one of the hotel chains was considering a local site for one its first hot spots. The local hotel wasn’t chosen.

Now every hotel in East Valley that is serious about attracting business travelers — not to mention convenience stores and coffee shops — has WiFi.

WiFi and the proliferation of cell phones have made life tougher on the struggling telecom industry. In the late 1990s, telecom companies expanded fiber optic networks. The demand has not caught up with the capacity.

They may well have built for a future that never will come.

All this change is kind of scary. The products we make, the businesses we’re involved in, and the services we provide may well be rendered obsolete by technology. Or enhanced by it.

No age has had to deal with these kind of profound changes, I was thinking. Then I came across an item, from a typewriter, that opened my eyes.

It is the memoir of E.B. Beall, a successful banker and investor in Gallion, Ohio. I probably have the only copy. In 1961, when Beall, my wife’s maternal grandfather was 71, he sat down with a tape recorder and talked about his life. The result was 70 typewritten pages in a three-ring notebook.

He was born on a farm and grew up in a world that had no paved roads, no automobiles, no airplanes, no rural electricity, no radio and no TV. Power was provided by horses. You kept food from spoiling with ice.

By 1961, all that changed.

As I read on, I realized every age has its challenges and opportunities brought about through innovation and technological change.

For example, Beall told of a company his bank did business with that made a certain kind of shovel it exported to railroad companies in Britain. World War I came along and disrupted their business.

After the war, the British railroad companies no longer used that kind of shovel. The shovel-maker went out of business.

But through change, there was opportunity. Though he had grown up with horses, Beall saw a future in the auto. He built the first "drive-in" gas station in his town. He later sold the gas business and made a small fortune.

Technological advances are inevitable and usually beneficial. Still, every time the computer freezes up, I miss the typewriter.

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