When I was a kid, my mother would send me to Tucker Brothers, the neighborhood grocery store, with instructions to pick up “…a bottle of milk and a loaf of bread.” I knew exactly what that meant. It was a straight forward instruction that required no explanation or discussion. Not so today.
I recently visited our local mega food market to claim a similar order, and found over 65 types of milk, and nearly a hundred different kinds of bread. In the milk cooler we have skim, 1%, 2%, lactose free (in a variety of strengths, some with extra calcium), fat free, Buttermilk, Silk, all in a variety of dairies and brands, and we haven’t even reached the shelf with chocolate, coffee, and strawberry milks, – all premixed for the busy family’s convenience.
As for bread, there’s a variety of wheat, oats, rye, honey this-and-that, multi-grain, light, low cal, gluten free, dietetic, thin sliced, sandwich size, sourdough, Italian, organic, oatmeal, pockets, bagels, roll-ups, buns, and rolls (dinner and finger). Let’s not forget cinnamon, cinnamon with raisin, and plain old raisin bread.
Now I’m told to pick up “…a 2%, lactose free milk, in the blue carton, with extra calcium, and don’t forget to check the expiration date.” What? No lot number?
And it’s not just the supermarket where our lives have been needlessly complicated by choice. Go into Starbuck’s some day and just order “coffee.” They’ll look at you as a refugee from some far away place and time; or, try ordering a “doughnut” at Dunkin’ Donuts. They’ll wave their hand across the sweeping display cases of doughnut offerings and suggest that you “pick one.”
The rest of our lives are spent in similar unnecessary complication: The IRS tax forms are so complicated that nearly 80% of all American tax payers have to hire a tax professional. The Wall Street collapse that cost so many jobs and pensions was partially due to greed, but also due to complex financial instruments and mortgage packages so complicated that neither the people selling them, let alone the people buying them, fully understood what they were doing.
Congress tries to pass reasonable sounding laws and regulations that most of us can support, only to learn they have riders on them authorizing someone’s home state $50 million dollars to study why dogs bark and bees buzz. So, the responsible person has to vote against the entire package, and the partisan fights are on.
A friend of mine in state office tells me of the stacks of bills he gets delivered each day which he is supposed to read, understand, and vote on. As one national politician said in a rare moment of candor: “We’ll understand what they’re about after we pass them.” Yes, and maybe we’ll understand that gas is flammable after we pour some on a fire.
I have a PC using Microsoft’s Word Software. They keep updating it with features and benefits I don’t want or need. They change, if not discontinue, the standard I had worked with and make me use my time to learn their new, profit increasing, more complicated system. I don’t want features and benefits. I want simplicity, consistency, and support.
And that goes for my phone too. I use it to send and receive phone calls. I don’t want it to be a camera, a music player, a flashlight, a texting machine and I will never use it to watch television or movies. I just want a telephone.
Why is all this happening? The first reason is because we can do it. I read recently where the computing power contained within one of those talking Hallmark holiday greeting cards exceeds the computer capacity of the Eagle space module that landed on the moon in 1969. If they can make computer chips that cheaply, it’s no wonder they’re in everything from car keys to sneakers to wine coolers.
The second reason is sales and competition. If you’re making electric camping lanterns, you better add an AM/FM radio, a highway blinker, siren, and a compressor to inflate tires before your competition does. After all, you’re only adding pennies to your manufacturing costs and dollars to your sales price and profit margins.
The third reason is natural curiosity and the innate human instinct to forge ahead. If we can build industrial robots, we can build them for the home too. They can do the daily menial chores, and by night we can make them sing and dance and do entertaining impressions. Oh, and maybe, after we’re in bed, they can just sit there in the dark for the rest of the night and wipe out any evil doer who breaks in. Cool.
When I started work in 1960, our company hired a Futurist who told us that by the time we were in the 1980’s, we would be looking for additional ways to keep ourselves busy because, while our income would be steady and sufficient, most of what we’d be doing would have been taken over by technology. We’d be living like royalty. Well, that didn’t happen.
Then in the 1970’s , I went to a trade show exhibition of the “paperless office.” Everything would be recorded on computer files and not a shred of paper would be found in the modern office. My boss commented: “We’ll see the paperless toilet before we see the paperless office.” He called that one right.
In the turbulent 1990’s, we were told: “You will never see less change in your business and private lives than you see today. It only gets faster and more complicated.” That one has worked out.
And, of course, medical science promised us healthier lives and longer life spans. They delivered on some of that. Our kids don’t get polio or TB like they once did, but where did autism, invulnerable viruses, and peanut butter allergies come from? As for extended life, they can indefinitely prolong the last 10% of life. Myself, I would have preferred a few extra years in my prime.
Where does it all lead? Some fear it all leads down the garden path to a sheer cliff, with rocks at the bottom. That’s not fair. More likely, it leads to more discoveries, improved processes, more knowledge, more advancements, and more changes at an ever increasing rate. It’s neither bad nor good. It depends on what we decide to adopt, what we do with it, and how we handle it thereafter.
All we can do is be aware, keep up as best we can, read, listen, question, discuss, and train ourselves to better judge the outcome and value vs. the cost and complexity.
This is the New Reality, and it’s here to stay.