Essay: The Smirk of Progress

Non Sequitur comic

As I reflect on the history of the confluence of computers and telecommunications, it strikes me that the main transgenerational mechanism through which great moments in history can be recognized is the smirk.

The “smirk,” by which I basically mean either outright disdain of or a more polite condescending amusement with older technologies, is a bad and dangerous habit. Anti-historical, really. What it reflects, however, is a recognition of rapid evolution within an individual’s lifetime, and that is usually an important warning signal for historians. Rapid change within a lifetime is personal; people remember it directly without recourse to history books or the History Channel. To some extent, it unhinges them. People come to expect rapid evolution without understanding the context in which technological development takes place. People expect change but don’t know why, in short. They become captive of the process, not understanding that they control it, like a man sitting in a carriage who startles his horse by yelling “Help! Runaway Horse!”

This false sense of inevitability in turn has political consequences. If people do not know that they are empowered to control the velocity and direction of technology development, then they abandon decisions to people who do know what they are doing but may not have the public interest in mind-and who may feel no responsibility for the consequences of their actions.

Historians are important antibodies to this malady; we clarify the process and help people become aware that technology development along certain lines or specific paths is not inevitable now and never was inevitable.

The smirk, like cholesterol, is not uniformly a bad thing, however. It is, in part, anti-hype: a skeptical reaction to overblown rhetoric and false promises. It is okay to smirk at the excitement over the seemingly long-ago release of the 33 Mhz chip or the 14.4Kbps modem if we do so because we recognize that they did not change our lives forever and neither will the release of the next gizmo. But it is not okay to smirk if we do so in the smug assumption that the past was not only prologue, but primitive.

I have seen the smirk. It exists. As the corporate historian at MCI it is my job, every now and then, to explain to new employees that primitive technologies once existed. That once upon a time, shortly after the invention of fire, transmission by Internet had an average rate of 56 Kbps. That corporations used to print such objects as telephone directories and policy manuals on paper.

The fusion of computing and telecommunications into internetworking- that is, the production, refinement, distribution, retailing, and consumption of bitstreams – is a big deal to us today. We can, and do, write reams and reams of freshly minted white papers and articles on how the advent of internetworking will change the economy and society. However all of this will be immensely boring to people in twenty years or so. They will smirk at us. The significance of what is happening today will be too painfully obvious even to merit discussion. Wondering at it now is analogous to someone in 1920 sitting down to write an eager and awed discourse about how the horseless carriage was changing U. S. society. Well, of course, it was, we smirk. Or rather, people were using the horseless carriage to change U. S. society, and changing that technology in the process.

Despite being a trained professional, I sometimes get hit by an attack of smirkiness-usually when pursuing some research request on corporate operations in the 1980s. The advent of MCI Mail in 1983, for example, was heralded as the great breakthrough of its day, promising electronic mail! MCI Mail was a hopelessly complex hybrid system of transmitting text from one computer to another and then printing out a piece of paper at the receiving end on pre-supplied stationary and then hand-delivering the letter by courier. It was eclipsed by the deployment of the cheap facsimile reproduction (fax) machine in the 1986-87 period. And yet in 1983, MCI Mail so terrified postal workers that they lodged protests about MCI’s advertising the service.

If I were so foolish as to attempt to explain the importance of internetworking to the corporate world, I need not look much further than my own career at MCI. The public relations department hired me in February 1994 to manage the Corporate Archives, which consisted of approximately 630 cubic feet of assorted documents and artifacts that no one knew quite what to do with. Six months later my boss assigned me to be the official public relations representative on something called the MCI Web Team, a group of about a dozen people dedicated to using intranet technologies to improve operating efficiencies. Today there are thousands of people in MCI responsible for exactly that same objective. Ninety percent of what I do is intranet-related. My laser scanner and I are close personal friends. I manage my own web site. I can go a day without answering the phone because all my information requests come by e-mail now.

Don’t smirk. Without the ability to hitch computers to modems and cables, we’d still be back in the days of printing stuff and sending it out by courier. I’d estimate that in the four years I’ve been here, I am as productive in terms of quantity and quality of history support as a staff of five would have been in 1990.

What happened to those four other historians, I don’t know. Maybe they got jobs in other companies. I sure hope so. That aspect of progress in communication technologies is nothing to smirk about.

Adam L. Gruen has been MCI Corporate Historian since 1994. From 1985 to 1993 he was Project Director of the NASA Space Station History Project. He received the doctorate in history of technology from Duke University in 1989.

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