A diary of the digital age

One man’s survey finds out why a lot of people love their computers

The internet tracks and predicts my behavior. Artificial intelligence may know more about me than I do myself. Yet I still love computers. And I’ve found that many other do as well.

I recently asked about 50 friends, family members and work acquaintances about their lifetime experiences with the digital world. Their responses form a collective, personal diary of the digital age. My 50 people are virtually all college graduates and hold down middle-class jobs, or did before retiring. Almost all are white, and most live in New England.

I found out how intensely people feel about the increase in their personal productivity. In sum, they say they have flourished thanks to computers.

And I was struck when I read the results of my online survey to discover that people like me, baby boomers (1946-1964) had pretty much the same experiences with and attitudes about digital life has did Gen Xers (1965-1980) and millennials (1981-1996). We have collectively absorbed computers into our lives to about the same penetrating depth.

Impact on work

A personal financial planner told me that planners no longer have a monopoly on financial information, which posed both a challenge and an opportunity.

He said, “The personal financial adviser may have been the only source for certain information in the past. Now raw information is readily accessible. The growth in our sector is the need to help people sort through all of the data and identify what information is relevant to the individual.”

A number of the older set are in mature or declining industries. Writers find fewer publications to write for. A former account executive in top-quality office furniture says that the demand for big conference rooms has shrunk: “Construction, architectural woodworking seems to have moved from small independent companies (30 to 40 people) to larger firms, with more regimented (less custom) products.”

Some people born in the 1970s (including my three children) learned to program in middle age. Younger respondents, those born in the 1980s and 1990s, were far more likely to work at jobs specifically designed around computers.

Personal productivity

Despite these mixed experiences with work opportunities, my respondents revealed an almost universally positive assessment about how the computer, and the internet especially, have increased their productivity at work.

An oil executive wrote me: “The instantaneous and broad-based spread of digital business information means that it is possible for anyone, anywhere, to have a global map of oil production and shipping data.”

One educator reports more data collection for evaluation purposes, more immediate communication, less mail and fewer phone calls.

Another teacher points to the expansion of distance learning, “changing the business model” for the teacher as well as student.

An author of many books says, “I can write papers and books a lot faster now.”

Consumer experience

In her new book, “Surveillance Capitalism,” Shoshana Zuboff describes a point in history when the internet turned to a marketplace colossus. In 2002, Google’s engineers “grasped that the continuous flows of collateral behavioral data could turn the search engine into a recursive learning system that constantly improved search results and product innovation.”

This breakthrough (which she says Yahoo might have made) is the foundation of the online consumer experience that eclipses our histories with main street and big-box shopping.

A retired healthcare manager told me, “Purchasing has become easier for two reasons. First, you can do a lot of comparison research on the computer. Second you can buy online without having to go to a store, deliveries are quick and reliable. Returns are fairly painless.”

“It happened very quickly,” an engineer in her late 30s observes. “I never liked the idea of online shopping and then suddenly I was ordering all necessities online (shampoo, dish detergent, presents for people). There were far more options and cheaper prices. Now, I’m making an effort to stop online shopping and only use it for specialty items (certain teaching items I can’t buy in stores, or specific items for the kids).”

The online experience extends beyond conventional consumer products. A librarian says that online access has been particularly helpful in caring for a spouse with a chronic illness.

Social media

One Vermonter observes that it allows her to keep up with friends and family with whom she doesn’t get face to face time. “It can be awkward when one sees an old friend after having not seen them for a long time, and you realize you know all sorts of things they’ve been doing without having them tell you. The traditional ‘so what have you been up to lately?’ doesn’t apply as well anymore,” now that she follows along their lives on social media.

A real estate professional says that among friends it “doesn’t enrich nor reduce face to face, it’s entirely its own thing.” For work friends, some far away, social media makes up for scarcity in social time physically together.

Second thoughts?

I found an all-around queasiness about the dangers to which computers exposed them. The CEO of a New England internet marketing firm says, “I feel more connected and better positioned for good work because of the technology – but I do not feel as secure. The amount of personally identifiable information on me that is made available through technology – and the lack of perfect security around that data continues to challenge my using it more substantially.”

None of the participants expressed concern about how they might be manipulated by algorithms of Facebook and the dating sites (and retailers as well), designed to influence attention and personal decisions unobtrusively.

Finally, put the generally happy observations into a broader context. The entire country probably does not enjoy the flourishing of experience of most of my correspondents. They are college-educated with middle-class jobs.

Differences in broadband access suggests an invisible gated community. According to Pew Research, among those earning $75,000 or more, 87% use broadband. Among those earning $30,000 or less, the figure is 45%. Broadband access might serve as a proxy for easy access to the good life of much of the middle class, in work and personal pursuits.

These diary entries reflect one part of America.

Peter Rousmaniere is a business journalist and consultant who lives in Montpelier, Vt. He can be reached at pfr@rousmaniere.com.

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