Pondering the evolution of office technology

By David Bretl 

Walworth County Board of Supervisors 

      The typewriter repairman always gets nervous when he stops by my office. The occasion of his annual visit is to perform preventive maintenance on the single electric typewriter that serves our seven-person office suite.

      I explain to him that I’m fascinated by typewriters, which I am, but he never lets his guard down when it comes to answering my questions about how many typewriters he cleans for us and where they are all located.

      I don’t blame him. The typewriter is racing toward extinction, and I’m sure this poor guy thinks that I will speed the process up if I find out where they all are; the best course, for someone who makes his living this way, is to let sleeping typewriters lie.

      Undeterred by our repairman’s silence, I pulled our typewriter maintenance contract and learned that we have 84 typewriters, countywide. This breaks down to approximately 9.4 full-time employees per machine, not too far off of the ratio in my own administration office.

      There was a time when I probably would have launched a crusade to ban typewriters from county buildings. It wouldn’t have been a hostile confiscation, but more like the federal government’s cash for clunkers program, “push, pull or drag your old typewriter in and get a credit on a new computer.”

      My point would have been that since the computer can do anything a typewriter can do, given enough cables, peripherals and patience, why maintain the old technology?

      I’ve mellowed over the years and now don’t see the harm in having a few of the old machines around to fill out the occasional pre-printed form or address or a fugitive envelope or two.

      In time, I imagine that the situation will resolve itself. Our typewriter count has decreased by eighteen machines from 2008 to the present.

      One aspect of the personal computer revolution that has never been fully resolved in many offices is the division of labor in producing documents.

      In the legal setting, at least, a Dictaphone or tape recorder was the only device that I ever had in my office to produce a letter or document until about 1992. That necessarily meant that a legal secretary was required to transcribe the recording or even take shorthand, in a pinch. I was never comfortable dictating in person. It seemed pretentious to me, like something that was done in old movies. Microcassette tapes, attached to files with special plastic clips, were the way my work got done.

      The introduction of personal computers in every office made everyone a typist, whether they were or not. Many professionals began producing their own documents, via the “hunt and peck method,” under the belief that they could produce a document more quickly themselves. Some could pull it off, but most couldn’t.

      Standard formatting, which made letters and documents look professional, even elegant, was the first casualty. Who cares, it was argued, isn’t it the content that’s important? Grammar became far more flexible under the same theory. With increasing frequency, documents would refer to former clients and nonsensical places, like Walworth County, Florida, when templates were not carefully proofed.

      Since we knew what the author meant, those of us who got hung up on such minor points were considered fussy. Over time, the combination of all of these errors has begun to impact more than just style. The demise of our written language may be approaching more quickly than we think, because it isn’t only the typewriter that is becoming passé; personal computers will soon follow.

      As smartphones and tablets become more powerful, many young people are bypassing the computer, altogether. As a result, the longest composition that many of them write consists of 140 characters on Twitter. The ability to write a coherent memo is becoming a rare skill among our younger job applicants.

      Improvements in technology have always forced workers to change their skills. It explains why no one manufactures a decent buggy whip anymore and why the typewriter repair guy is so cagey.

      Lately, however, I get the feeling that another kind of “chicken and egg” relationship is at work. Because writing, editing and maintaining files in a logical manner is hard work, we are convincing ourselves that the skills are obsolete.

      At least one reason why “keyboarding” has replaced typing classes in many schools is that young people don’t view office support jobs as a “glamorous” career option. This attitude is impacting many vocations these days. Glamour is a relative concept. Last winter, I paid $200 an hour for emergency service on my furnace. I hope the technician got to keep most of that money, himself, but even if he didn’t, he was performing important work and making more money than many unemployed or underemployed young people who are waiting for their dream job to be bestowed upon them.

      Text messaging and YouTube videos are great technology, but they have their limits. When we no longer have the ability to communicate complex ideas to each other, we will have lost yet another competitive advantage in the world economy.

      By the same token, if the next generation of workers is going to live in their old bedrooms until the Kardashians offer them a reality show, we are all in trouble. As the young people in your life head back to school in a few weeks, show some interest in the latest paper they have written, and have an honest conversation about what they want to be when they grow up. Their future, as well as our county’s, is at stake.

      The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of the Walworth County Board of Supervisors, this newspaper or Southern Lakes Newspapers LLC.


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