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Revolutionary Thoughts

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April 01, 2002
Technology Revolution
Bill Fitzpatrick

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© 2002 Hospitality Upgrade. No reproduction without written permission.

Living in the Information Age can occasionally feel like being driven by someone with tunnel vision. This unfortunate disability cuts off the peripheral visual field, allowing sufferers to see where they want to go, but little besides.

-John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid, The Social Life of Information

An industry pundit, presumably in a sober moment, contemplated a futuristic restaurant experience where two high-level executives, who, too busy to actually sit down and dine with each other, might enjoy the same ambiance during a lunch meeting. This fake ambiance would be achieved by mixing real food with virtual reality, video and other technology gizmos, to create, say, a shared Morton’s Steakhouse setting and experience. Neither executive has to leave their office. While I hope the column was written to illustrate possibilities, it also serves to highlight the obsession our culture has with the “Technology Revolution.”

I will, using only the most basic of tools, attempt to place our era in a proper perspective. These tools consist of reasoning (free since Day One and available to all), the local library (see “Libraries, The Great Alexandria” for lineage), and a pad of paper and two sharpened pencils. I hereby swear, on the very circuit boards of a SNA router that I will not access the Information Superhighway, enter AOL chat rooms or otherwise use what many view as indispensable technology tools, in the preparation of the following thoughts on the Industrial and Technology Revolutions, and the impact these revolutions have had on the individual. Where appropriate, I will relate these general thoughts to the more specific issues in the foodservice technology industry.

In our global view of the Technology Revolution, we must first put aside the narrow view that “technology” means “computer.” More properly, computers are a subset of technology, and may be placed next to the lever, the ax, the plow, the weaving loom and the locomotive engine. All of these tools increase productivity and, at least in theory, provide benefits to the individual and progress to society. However, the matter of “What is progress?” is a subject best left to priest and philosophers.

Tools can also displace workers. The term “Luddite,” a label applied to those who question the value of technology, originated in 1811 during the Industrial Revolution. In that year, bands of disenchanted British workers, led by the (likely) mythical King Ludd, attacked and destroyed factories and machines. This populist movement attracted much attention. Lord Byron addressed the House of Lords and spoke against a proposed law that would apply the death penalty to anyone breaking a machine. Many European intellectuals shared his skepticism.

Sometimes the cost of a revolution is more than a displaced worker. In Wait Till Next Year: A Memoir, noted historian and lifelong baseball fan Doris Kearns Goodwin wistfully remembers her childhood in the early 1950s. As a young girl, in the days before television, she and her friends gathered around a radio and listened to the gentle inflections of baseball announcer Red Barber as he described the game between her beloved Brooklyn Dodgers and a visiting rival. Later that day, when her Dad returned from work, using the scorecard, her memory and a bit of imagination, she faithfully recounted the game. Two years later, when televisions became as popular as hot dogs, the neighborhood gatherings ended. Each child sat alone and watched the game or show of his or her choice. The technology had indeed provided a benefit, but at the cost of community.

In our lifetime, radio, television and the Internet have spread western culture and value to countries that may not wish the exposure. Angry mobs destroy visible signs of American capitalism such as an American fast food restaurant. Others demonstrate against globalization at world economic summits.

Much of our economic successes can be credited to technology; however, according to noted scholar Neil Postman, an unquestioned belief in the power of technology is dangerous, for all of our problems cannot be solved with technology, and further, technology solutions usually have unplanned for and unpleasant side effects. Postman believes that the lessons learned from the 18th century leaders, such as Benjamin Franklin, Jean Rousseau, Adam Smith and Lord Byron, as they confronted the rapid technological changes of the Industrial Revolution, offer solutions to the problems of the 21st century. Let’s first take a closer look at the Industrial Revolution.

Prior to the 18th century, the majority of people lived on farms and raised their own crops. It took the labor of the entire family to raise enough food for the family. At night, the women cooked and wove thread into cloth, and the men created tools from metal and wood. In a 100 year period, factories replaced farms and steam engines replaced the men. Rich in natural resources but lacking in labor, the U.S. agents went to Europe and promoted jobs and opportunities. By 1860, the census revealed that our country consisted of 1.6 million Irish, 1.3 million Germans and over 500,000 British. Many who worked in the factories lived in the mill towns that were set up and run by the factory owners. The impact technology had on the lives of the people was immense, and perhaps unmatched in history. There were benefits and there were costs. Women, who at first wanted the glamour of a factory job, soon learned the stresses that come from balancing work and home. Conditions worsened, as the supply of labor exceeded demand.

The issues have changed in the 21st century. We are more affluent, but the affluence has come with a price tag. One in three professionals regularly daydream about “getting away,” while on the job. The average workweek increased from 40 hours in 1990, to over 45 hours at the end of the decade. Despite all of the productivity tools, we are working longer, and, in many cases, enjoying it less. No reasonable person denies the benefits of technology; or should blindly accept the notion that technology is the solution to all problems.

In a thought provoking chapter on technology, Postman imagines 18th century luminaries such as those cited above, advising us with answers to the following questions: What is the problem to which this technology is the solution? Whose problem is it? What people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution? What new problems might be created because we have solved this problem?

Using the above questions, consider the following “modern day” solutions:

  • The state of Maryland spent over $100 million, equipping 1,200+ public schools with at least two computers with Internet access
  • Bill Gates, in his book The Road Ahead, points out that in the future we will be able to speak to our televisions, personal computers or other information appliances
  • Cable companies announce the availability of hundreds of channels
  • Students in third grade use a calculator
  • The electronic book

Consider industry-specific topics:

  • Handheld POS terminals
  • The ASP POS model
  • Labor and inventory systems with 15-minute buckets that alert managers, through beepers or pagers, if thresholds are exceeded
  • Automated PBX attendants
  • Automated voice response/customer data entry systems for customer service
  • Windows as a required operating system for a POS terminal
  • Kiosks for self-ordering

On a more personal level, the above issues are very real to us at SCS. For those of you unfamiliar with our company, we provide cabling, installation and maintenance services to the multi-unit restaurant industry. Now in our 10th year of business, we have grown from a regional to a national company, with a reference list that is the envy of many in our industry. With the growth comes the temptation to use technology that would enable us to automate manual processes.

We know of a technology that reduces the length of time it takes to generate maintenance invoices, but a monolithic system deprives our clients of choice.

We know of a technology that eliminates switchboard attendants. But in the “my point-of-sale system is down and I need service now” business, a friendly voice beats the double team of a computer voice and touch-toned serial numbers 24/7.

There have been important lessons lost in the last 200 years. I believe we all, in our quieter moments, desire the time when chat meant face-to-face conversation, community meant the neighbors on the same street, and frequent diner meant honored guest. Like Postman, I believe there is a middle ground between Gates and Ludd, and Rosseau and rationalism.

Of course, I do want to hasten to add that if you have any questions or issues with my comments, I can be reached at bill_fitzpatrick@spartancomputer.com. I do have limits, however. Do not invite me to a virtual dinner, or you may get wild and unpredictable results.

Bill Fitzpatrick is the senior vice president of sales and marketing for Spartan Computer Services and may be reached at (800) 866-3352.

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