On Calculators, Spreadsheets & New Media

So I really, really liked Here Comes Everybody by Clay Shirky (did I mention that if you’re reading this you should read the book already at some point? Yeah, I did). Anyway, I haven’t annotated a business book this much since The Long Tail.

In the Epilogue, Shirky tells a story about when he was in junior high and the powers that be were lamenting the increased use of calculators in schools, decrying it as laziness and bemoaning the inability of future generations to effectively do long division by hand, fretting over what would happen when the calculator fad was over. Shirky points out that he and his peers had already internalized and assimilated the benefits of this new tool, taking the obvious shift in doing math via calculator not as a fad but a change that was here to stay.

When I was starting my career in an agency media department, I recall the stories from my supervisors of doing media flowcharts by hand with slide rules and rulers. I still recall how when I got my first batch of office supplies, my supervisor told me to get my name on my ruler quickly because people had no qualms claiming them. As I was still trying to figure out why I really needed a ruler, I turned back to laying out flowcharts in Lotus 123 (kids, that’s a spreadsheet program not made by Microsoft, not sure if it’s still around).

I also recall my supervisors crunching large amounts of numbers on a calculator/adding machine (i.e. a calculator that had those roles of paper hanging out the back), then ripping the sliver of paper off to use as reference in a meeting. That same supervisor that told me to write my name on my ruler quickly also told me to do the same on the bottom of my calculator and to make sure I always had a calculator w/ me in every meeting. I nodded my head then went back to developing formulas and various other calculations in my spreadsheets so I wouldn’t have to rely on making sure I held onto little slivers of papers or develop formulas while rifling through data from disperse sources on a calculator in front of demanding clients and crabby bosses.

The point? To paraphrase Shirky, it’s not that I (or those starting their careers at roughly the same time I did) knew more useful things – we knew fewer useless things. We came of age professionally (the early to mid-90s) when the tools now taken for granted – tools that have been vastly approved upon – were in the process of overtaking the way things had been done for decades previously.

Another little fad started taking off as I was starting my career – these things called “banners” were starting to be sold on this thing called “the Internet”. So, if you’ve ever wondered why it’s taking so long for “new”, digital media to catch up with “traditional” media in terms of importance even though time spent with “new”, digital media is growing while pretty much every other media is decreasing in time spent, remember this thing called “the Internet” was coming of age as a medium when a generation of media people were still reliant on rulers and calculators to do their work.

Now nearly 15 years on, those of us who understood the inherent power of digital tools in more effectively and efficiently doing our work and saw the initial promise of are coming to points in our careers where the Young Folks coming to work for us don’t know what it’s like to not have a computer connected to the Internet within easy reach. And they’re taking for granted the tools available to them.

So, as I told my former colleague in response to not the first rant of his I’ve heard on this subject matter, I like to recall Gandhi’s quote: “First they ignore you. Then they laugh at you. Then they fight you. Then you win.” Feels like on most fronts, truces are being negotiated.

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Filed under books, future of media, the career

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