Nature/Human Nature

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Bethesda Fountain Central Park NY

It’s the 21st Century. We have jumbo jets that practically fly themselves. We have instant global communications. We have satellites orbiting 22,000 miles above Earth with imaging so precise that you can tell if the guy sitting on Bethesda Fountain in Central Park is wearing loafers or sandals.

Yet a second string volcano is Iceland, which none of us can pronounce, can spew enough ash to shut down air travel in Europe and disrupt flights around the world.

Whether or not you believe in a Supreme Being, something periodically gives us a Gibbs Slap to the back of the head. It reminds us that we are not masters of all we survey. An earthquake levels a country. A hurricane drowns major cities. Floods crack dams and destroy crops. Tornados target trailer parks. And a random methane gas explosion reminds us that coal isn’t cheap when you factor in the cost of human lives. I’m all for pushing scientific boundaries but, to paraphrase that old TV commercial, we should be careful not to try the patience of Mother Nature.

From another angle, technology can work but people get in the way. I haven’t been in the DMV for many years. On my last visit, I remember standing in line and when I got to the window being told that I was in the wrong line. In that line, after an hour, I was told that I had to have the application stamped first. That meant an hour in a third line. I get the stamp. The woman at the stamp window was kind enough to tell me to go get my picture taken before I got back in the first line. Great advice, but it took 30 minutes or so to get the picture taken. Now, I had to get an eye test. Back to the first line, which is even longer than before; my paper work is finally accepted.  I now just have to go to the cashier and pay. It’s another long line. It took six hours to get my driver’s license renewed.

Imagine my surprise when I went to a DVM in another state to get a duplicate title for a sick friend. Everything is computerized. There is a triage desk that pulls up your records and figures out exactly what you need so that you will be sent to the one employee who can take care of everything you need. I’m issued a number. Within a half an hour, I’m at the window when human nature kicks in. My id lists me as Stephen C. Miller. The power of attorney I have from my friend lists my full middle name. “I don’t know what that “C” really stands for. You have to bring in proof”, she said. She claims that the only acceptable proof would be my birth certificate. I offer my voter registration card which does have my full name but she insists it has to be the birth certificate. My birth certificate is 500 miles away.

A good dinner, a couple of glasses of wine and a good night’s sleep, I tackle the problem again. This time I ask at the triage desk if I could talk to a supervisor. Another ticket pops out and within ten minutes, I’m before the supervisor. I explain the problem. She asks if I have any other government issued ID. I show her the voter card. She accepts it and gives me a ticket that puts me at the front of the line. Five minutes later I’m out of the door with everything in order. This is a case where the technology worked extremely well but one bureaucrat slavishly following what she feels is an inflexible rule, wasted two days of my life.

No matter how advanced the technology, it still comes down to the whims of nature both human and natural.

Steve Miller
Stephen C. Miller is an editor, reporter and technology consultant. He writes the blog, The Future Was Yesterday: Technology in the Real World. He has spent nearly 30 years training African journalists throughout the continent in investigative techniques.

Formerly he was Assistant to the Technology Editor at The New York Times. He retired in 2008 after a 20 year career there. While at The Times he supervised the training of reporters and editors in the use of new technologies. Miller started his career in broadcasting, spending 12 years at CBS News in a variety of positions, including Night News Manager.

He is on the Board of Directors of Investigative Reporters and Editors and is past President of the New York Association of Black Journalists. He speaks frequently on how technology is affecting journalism.
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