I rushed through college in 3-1/2 years, graduating in December 1971. I was anxious to be done with schooling and start a “real” life. I was fortunate because my parents paid for my college expenses. I could have had an extra semester for “free,” but I was ready to tackle the world. The U.S. was in the middle of a recession and jobs were a problem. What was I thinking?
On March 6, 1972 I started working at Kwasha Lipton, an actuarial consulting firm. The major portion of our work involved determining how much a company should contribute to their defined benefit pension plan each year. This involved updating employee data from the previous year, resolving data questions, writing complicated evaluation programs, determining the correct results and writing a 30-60 page report documenting the findings. The process took 8-10 weeks assuming we got our data questions “quickly” answered.
The fax machine did not exist (teletype was slow, expensive and not widely available). Simple questions could be answered by phone, but any large data questions required using mail to send the questions out and get the answers back. There was no Fed-Ex next day service; in fact mail took the better part of a week to get from one place to the next. Due dates were approximate. Typing was done on IBM Selectrics and we had a big printing press in the basement to print our reports. You submitted computer runs in the morning and got them back the next morning, unless they were rush (which had to be approved by a VP).
If we ran into an unexpected problem that caused an extra day’s delay, we simply blamed the postal service if it arrived late.
I won’t take you through each technology change and its impact on lifespeed between my first days at work and my last, a decade ago when I retired. Instead, I’ll consider the effects of the changes in speed in transferring information between clients and ourselves. The first crack in the armor came with local clients: an expensive courier service was available and we could deliver material in a half-day’s time.We rarely used it, but it was available if necessary. Once Fed-Ex and their rivals introduced next-day shipping, our deadline became the last pick-up at the latest drop-off point (usually the airport). We knew exactly how long it took at 11 pm to get from the office to the drop-off.
The nail in the coffin was the fax machine. Originally expensive and slow (high quality took something like six minutes a page), soon faxes could send a page in under a minute. They became ubiquitous, relatively inexpensive and as soon as you were done with your work you had to IMMEDIATELY FAX IT.
A product that could legitimately have a delivery window of a week or two now had a fixed deadline attached: 5 pm June 18th and not a moment later.
It’s not just at work that communication speeds have changed our behavior. We used to write letters; now we IM. We used to have conversations at restaurants, now we pay more attention to our phones than to our dinner companions. We feel the necessity to put our best friend on hold so we can answer a phone call from who-knows-who. We need Amazon Prime to deliver our next toy tomorrow. We download an interesting app immediately. We used to reflect on thoughtful essays; now we pontificate in 140-character tweets.
HL Mencken said, “Complex problems have simple, easy to understand, wrong answers.”
This rushed life has caused our nation and probably the world to lose its ability to reflect on a problem and arrive at a considered solution. We insist on instantaneous answers to our questions. They’re usually very simple, and I fear often wrong.
In today’s frenetic environment, do we have to intentionally slow ourselves down to write well?