IT’s angry young man

Give a guy a column and eventually he’ll start making a big fuss over things he knows little about.

No, I am not talking about myself.

In the Weekend Review section of this past Saturday’s Globe and Mail, novelist-turned-mouthpiece Russell Smith decided to let the IT industry have it in an opinion piece headlined, “Exposing the lies the tech-heads have sold us.” It’s a four-pronged litany of grievances against the Internet, cell phones, paper feeders and the design of many other devices. As rants go, it ranks right up there with the columns you see in newspapers that decry the lack of good parking downtown, or the ones in the lifestyle section that wonder why socks always seem to go missing from the dryer. In other words, a tired diatribe that nevertheless will strike a chord with some readers because at one point, we’ve all been there.

Smith is best known for a book called How Insensitive, which is basically a warmed-over version of Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City but set in Toronto. It’s somewhat painfully stereotypical in the way it covers the variety of social cliques, and it is clear Smith’s attitude hasn’t changed since it was published. You see, Smith believes there are two kinds of people in the world: the everyday person and the “technologists.” While the average man or woman out there struggles fruitlessly to surf the Web, evil technologists “promise us that new machines will enable us to do magical things (such as watch TV on our computers; send video messages to our loved ones; send music files to one another).” Media outlets like ITBusiness.ca then join in, he writes, “singing the praises of machines that don’t exist yet, or that are too complicated to be sold to non-technologists.”

It’s funny how someone who likes to write about cool urban types seems to have so much difficulty with even the most basic modern tasks. Smith says “the Internet doesn’t work nearly as well as tech-heads and magazines tell you it does.” As proof, he relates his own problems using Interlog and a year-old computer that frequently crashes. I assume he’s not being literal when he blames this on the Internet (this would be like blaming the highway when your car breaks down on it). He also gets furious when he can’t use his cell phone in a restaurant (I tend to get furious when they do).

I draw attention to this invective not because it is terribly original, but because I think it goes to show you how little attitudes towards technology have changed in the last five years, even among those who fit the male/high education/high income demographic. Despite the cliched, hackneyed way in which it is written, there are certainly legitimate beefs here that foster the main inhibitors to growth in Internet penetration and e-commerce.

On the other hand, I also think there are two kinds of people in the world: those who think there are two kinds of people in the world, and everyone else. With the widespread use of PCs in corporate enterprises, educational institutions and in many households, the barriers between “technologists” and mainstream society have surely been whittled down, if not destroyed.

What may be changing are expectations, particularly among those steeped in digital culture that aren’t as dazzled as they might once have been. In some respects, it is the relatively unsophisticated user who sometimes has more patience with advancements in IT. In the latest issue of the fashion magazine V, for example, author Joan Didion talks at one point about how DSL “changed my life.” While writing a novel she frequently runs an Internet search in the middle of composing every other sentence. At one point, she drools over DOS: “It was so logical — it made me feel more logical,” she said. “The book had to be perfect because the word processor was perfect.”

What a difference a generation makes. Didion is stunned by what IT allows her to do. Smith finds only false starts: “Why did they sell us these products — in computerland, they would be called beta — before they were ready?” How insensitive, indeed.

sschick@plesman.com

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