Stepping Back From the Frightening Pace of Change


by Tony Kontzer

I know you all come here to read about technology. Well, this post isn't about technology; in fact, it's about what one might call anti-technology. I'm a firm believer that we, meaning humans, have no idea where our blind, unthinking acceptance of technology is taking us, and that once in a while we need to stop the rush to early adoption and reflect on simpler times.

It was in that spirit that I made a point last weekend, during a trip to California's northern coast, of visiting the Blue Ox Millworks, one of eight mills left in the U.S. that creates Victorian-era details using Victorian-era tools. I have to admit, I felt pretty dirty when, as owner and primary craftsman Eric Hollenbeck demonstrated how to make precise cuts using a variety of 19th century, pedal-powered saws, I stole a few quick glances at incoming e-mails on my BlackBerry (the fact that all were junk messages only made me feel dirtier.)

It's hard not to come away from visiting a place like the Blue Ox without thinking about how removed we've become from most of our history. It took human beings more than 11,000 years to go from the introduction of farming to the invention of the printing press. Yet we've "progressed" from the kinds of work done at the Blue Ox all the way to the era of Google, Facebook and Twitter in a little over 100 years. Trying to imagine where technology will take us in another 100 years is pretty much unfathomable.

That thought probably excites many of you, but remember, you represent some of the world's most advanced technology thinkers, and adopters. To many, the speed of technological change is terrifying, a one-way bullet train heading into a future too complex for them to grasp. I consider myself a person who straddles the fence between excited and terrified. I can't help but think that too many things are being lost in the transition, things that the Blue Ox shines a spotlight on. Things like man-powered machines, craftsman skills, and appreciation for fine details, all replaced by machine-powered men, programming skills, and cookie-cutter everything.

Which is why Blue Ox and the few other facilities like it are so important. They're places that allow us to transport to an earlier time. A time before we could possibly have any insight into the humongous changes we were setting in motion. A time before organization and dispensing of information trumped practical physical skills as the nation's economic engine. A time long before globalization enabled us to conduct business across the ocean at the risk of turning our backs on all the skills available to us in our own backyards.

For that, I'd like to thank Hollenbeck for showing me what I missed, and reminding me that when you slow things down, you might find that everything looks and feels a little better. There's got to be an IT lesson in there somewhere.