Reprinted with permission of the The Wall Street Journal.
A couple I know checked into one of the new Detroit hotels a few months ago and, in due course, left a 7 a.m. wake-up call.
Being an early riser, however, the husband was up long before 7, and decided he'd go down to breakfast and let his wife sleep late. He dialed the hotels switchboard, explained the situation, and said he'd like to cancel the wake-up call.
"Sorry, sir," the answer came, but we can't do that. It's in the computer, and there's no way to get it out now."
Consider another story. A while back, a reporter phoned a congressional committee and asked to speak to the staff director. Unfortunately, hewas told, the staff director wouldn't be in that morning; there'd been a power failure at his home. Well, the reporter persisted, that was certainly too bad, but just why did a power failure prevent him from coming to work?
"He can't get his car out of the garage," the secretary explained. "The garage doors are electrically controlled."
As these two anecdotes suggest, this is a column in praise of progress: those wonderful advances in science and technology that leave the world only slightly more snafued than before.
The balance sheet will eschew such common complaints as the way the modern office grinds to a halt whenever the copying machine is out of order. Or the computerized magazine subscription lists that take only four times longer than formerly to effect changes of address and which start mailing renewal notices six months before the subscription expires and then continue at weekly intervals.
Or the form letters that provide The New Yorker with so many droll end-of-the-column items, like the letter that was sent to the "News Desk, Wall Street Journal," and led off, "Dear Mr. Desk . . ." Or the new drugs, operations and health regimens that in due time are shown to be more dangerous than the illnesses.
Computers bulk centrally in many of the "this is progress?" stories. For instance, a friend recently went to make a deposit at her local bank in upstate New York. The deposit couldn't be accepted, she was informed, "because it's raining too hard." Seems that when the rain gets beyond a certain intensity, the wires transmitting the message from the branch banks to the computer at the main bank in Albany send jumbled signals - and so branch-bank operations have to be suspended temporarily.
Every newspaper person knows that each technological advance in the printing process somehow makes news deadlines earlier, rather than later as might logically be assumed. Computers, though, can foul things up in other ways, too. At a recent conference on press coverage of presidential campaigns, many participants suggested that the lengthy background stories prepared early in the campaign by the wire services or such special news services as those of The New York Times and Washington Post might be saved by subscribing papers and then used late in the campaign, when the public was more in the mood to pay attention.
"Are you kidding?" demanded a publisher present. "That stuff now all comes in computarized, and it's erased at the end of the day. We don't save any copy any more."
Computers aren't the only villains, to be sure. Everyone has observed bizarre scenes of a dozen people down on hands and kness searching the pavement or the grass or a tennis court for a lost contact lens. The other day, however, a colleague announced she was having trouble seeing out of one eye and was off to the optometrist's. About a half hour later, she was back, giggling. The night before, she had apparently put one contact lens on top of another in the case where she kept an extra lens, and had that morning unwittingly put two lenses in one eye.
During last winter's snow storms, the Amtrak Metroliners frequently had to removed from service as snow clogged the motors so cleverly mounted underneath the new high speed trains. (The cars are now beginning to be convertal to a different motor-mounting scheme.) A number of high schools in this area have been built with windows that don't open; when the air conditioning fails on a hot spring or fall day, students are given the day off. Last fall, when the nation moved back to standard time, a young friend was appalled to find she was going to have to turn her time-and-date digital wristwatch ahead 30 days and 23 hours.
Still another acquaintance had his car battery go dead while his power windows were rolled down - and then the rains came poured in while he was parked alongside the highway waiting for help.
Society's rush to credit cards has its convenient aspects - but also unpleasant ones. Just try to check into a hotel announcing that you prefer to pay cash rather than use a credit card. Scorn, suspicion, hostility, unAmerican, if not downright communistic.
Once upon a time, you could look up at the postmark on a letter and see exactly where and when it had been processed at the post office.
Now, not only does the postmark deny you some or all of this occasionally useful information, but it insists on selling you something instead: "National Guard Month - Gain Skills By Serving" or "Save Energy - Turn Off Lights."
And like most creations of American ingenuity, this, too, has been exported to less fortunate lands. A letter from Belgium the other day carried the exhortatory postmark: "Prevenez L'Hypertension. Evitez le Sel." In case your French wasn't up to it, there was a drawing of a salt shaker.
In all likelihood, corrective measures are being developed for many of the problems described above, and helpful correspondents will be writing in to tell me all about it. Yet I remain confident that new examples will come along to fill the gap. After all, that's progress.