The data breach fiasco of Minnesota’s Target Corp. (now joined by Neiman Marcus); the hacking of various other sites; the ongoing kerfuffle about the Affordable Care Act website and launch; and of course, the millions of classified documents about cybersnooping taken and revealed by Edward Snowden — these are not isolated incidents. They are specimens of a much larger societal phenomenon: the proliferation of technology. The fact is, we now live in digital times that are fragile, frail, frustrating and, frankly, disorienting.
Forty-four years ago, Alvin Toffler wrote his distinguished book “Future Shock.” It described a dynamic change affecting individuals and societies, summed up by “too much change in too short a period of time.” It was less the direction of change, but the speed, that left people victims of “shattering stress and disorientation” — or future-shocked.
The book was incredibly perceptive because there was no Internet in those days and not even a glimmer of what was to come. But today’s blinding reality should be a good opening to revisit Toffler’s thesis and commence a discussion about how well we are handling our speeding technology.
Take the “surprise” over the problematic launch of Obamacare. There should be no surprises here, but rather the stark realization — and ultimate acceptance — of the changes technology has imposed on us. The reality is that all modern connectivity advancements in virtually every field are now going to be digitally based.
When Social Security was launched in the late 1930s, it was joined by using snail mail with a 3-cent stamp. Slow, but it worked. When Medicare was introduced, there were no “websites” to deliver it — paper was the name of the game. But it worked.
Not so today, with the new health law. We demand instant results and perfect performance through digital technology, regardless of complexity; anything less is considered failure. But those expectations are not only unreasonable, they create aggravation if not anger. We simply have not dealt with the reality of our current future shock syndrome. It does not work that way, and likely never will again.
If there has been frustration with the Obamacare website, it is only part of how we have to function — and how we had better learn to live — in today’s digital world. The recent massive Target data breach is a telling reminder. The breach of security should not be a surprise. The thieves and hackers who violated Target’s system — and its customers — have been playing this game for years. It is and will continue to be a battle of cat and mouse with both those seeking to break into sites and those designing programs to protect confidential information on the job 24/7/365. Network security products are now among the hottest new developments of Silicon Valley.
Microsoft — leader of the world in software development — regularly has severe glitches in its new Windows systems. This is after the biggest name in computer software has tested and vetted each new program endlessly, yet fixes after delivery are the norm. Examples of defective websites are endless, so why are we surprised?
Technology has not only created a society of some danger for us, it is also creating high-speed confusion (obviously offset by many benefits). It is racing ahead at speeds that we will find hard to assimilate, resulting in continued stress and disconnect. Future shock — but here today.
Toffler was correct: We have entered a new era of human development (what he called “postindustrial society”). We must learn to respond better and smarter to our new digital age. That is the greater issue we should be discussing. Is speeding technology going to create stress, impatience, danger and confusion — or will it provide us with tools for convenience and efficiency? This is an opportunity to step back and seek some answers.
Myles Spicer is a retired ad agency owner.