I love technology. I always have, and expect that I always will. After having lived and worked with it for many years, however, I find myself comparing the promise I always believed it held with the reality I have experienced. Television shows such as The Jetsons and Star Trek were filled with wondrous technologies that showed how much better everyone’s lives could be because of them. Machines and computers could do all our work for us from the most mundane of household chores to the most complex matters of health, safety, travel, and security. Many of the promises of technology included robots to clean our homes and take care of our every personal need, flying cars to take us everywhere quickly and hands-free while we relax, read, or play a game, and even starships to take us to other planets where we may live and meet new forms of life.
As much as I love technology, I find myself feeling today, seventeen years into the twenty-first century, that technology is falling short on many of its best promises. I do not have a robot cleaning my house, my car still has four wheels on the ground and requires that I steer it everywhere I go, and human spaceflight only has a lot of Earth orbits and a few quick trips to the Moon to its credit. Where is the bright and shiny future filled with technology that provides us with a life of leisure and everything we need and want to be productive, safe, secure, and happy?
In libraries, the situation is very much the same. Where are the robotic--or even better--holographic assistants to help patrons? Where is the near-instantaneous, accurate retrieval of all known information from the beginning of time from a single point of access? Where is the technology to safely and securely store all this information in a device the size of a sugar cube? As I look around my library, filled from top to bottom with all manner of advanced technologies, I still see it filled with millions of paper books. There are no friendly robots clanking around, and it is more likely I will encounter a ghost than a holographic library assistant.
As I consider the disappointment I feel at seeing few, if any, of the interesting things I expected technology to provide, I realize something very important about technology. We always perceive it to be full of promise but rarely feel it completely delivers. However, I think this says something more about ourselves and how we see technology than about technology itself. We require a different approach. More to the point, we require a different attitude about technology. We must at all times approach it in an extremely pragmatic way. If we are always expecting technology to provide us with rainbows and unicorns we will be constantly frustrated and angry because seeing rainbows means it is raining, and unicorns do not exist. But understanding how technology works in the real world will give us the confidence to apply it to practical, messy, everyday situations and get the most out of it possible. Given that disappointment is the emotion felt when expectations are not met, with technology, if we approach it without preconceived notions or unrealistic expectations, we will find the end result is always productive and satisfying.
David Ratledge is Associate Professor and Coordinator of Technology Infrastructure at The University of Tennessee Libraries, Knoxville. He can be reached at email@example.com.