John Henry Versus the Steam Drill


by Tony Kontzer

On Easter night, I was with my fiancée visiting her father and stepmother , Robert and Pam, when a trivial piece of geographic information stopped our conversation in its tracks: Was Cuba an island unto itself, or did it share an island with another country?

Embarrassingly, none of us could remember with 100 percent certainty, so -- and this is where things probably get familiar to you -- two opposing searches ensued.

In one corner was Pam, an Internet addict who ran directly to her laptop. In the other was Robert, a self-avowed neo-Luddite who reached for an atlas (although it should be noted that it was an atlas produced specifically to help Harley Davidson owners find a certified dealer anywhere on Earth).

There they were, two people in search of the same information using contrasting strategies, each hoping their preferred method would emerge victorious. Now, to be fair, their race to find this very concrete fact didn't ultimately reveal much about either approach. Not only was Pam's Internet connection glacially slow, but Robert's atlas was cluttered with pages of information about Harley Davidson dealerships that kept distracting him.

But what's important was that I found myself, as I have every time a similar situation has arisen in recent years, hoping the neo-Luddite would get to the desired information first. (It's the same instinct that causes me to occasionally make my 11-year-old son look up words in an actual real-life dictionary rather than Googling them.) In fact, my rooting interest caused me to take a subversive role, luring Pam into a brief, unrelated exchange that bought Robert a minute or two. As he flipped through pages, updating us on his progress ("Did you guys know there's a Harley dealer in Aruba?"), I really thought he had a chance to get to the information first.

Alas, as soon as Pam sniffed out my distraction and refocused on her online search, she had a map up in seconds, and we had our answer. (Yes, Cuba is its own island.) Seconds later, Robert had found Cuba, as well, but the damage had been done.

Technology had won again, and I was reminded that it's only a matter of time before human beings completely abandon words on paper. For many people, especially those of us who've devoted our professional lives to publishing our thoughts in newspapers, magazines and books, it will be a profoundly sad day. But, turn on your TV and watch any show featuring a panel of journalists, and when newspapers get mentioned, one of them will jokingly say, "What are those?" Like death and taxes, the demise of the printed word is inevitable.

Until that time comes, however, I'll be rooting for Robert and the rest of the neo-Luddites with all my heart, no matter how much I've come to depend on technology for my livelihood.


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