Thursday, May 9, 2019

Reflections On Technology - By Michael Schaffner

One of the great benefits of the Civil War Sesquicentennial was some of the people I met.  One of them was Michael Schaffner whom I met at the penultimate event the sesquicentennial of the grand review in Harrisburg PA in November 2015.  I asked for Michael's input on the recent troubles of CCH which went down for a couple of days due to a ransomware attack effectively paralyzing a multitude of tax practices.  I mainly asked him because of his interest in military affairs.  The tech-induced tax work stop image made me think of the relatively recent move by the Navy to reinstitute training in celestial navigation.  Although Michael never served in the Navy, he has reasons to know a good bit about it as you can learn in his novel War Boys, which I reviewed on another site.  

His thoughts were a bit too extensive for my Forbes piece so I am reproducing them in full here. - PJR

For what I'm doing now I'm a great fan of new technology but also very much indebted to older forms.  For example, I love the ability to go to the Archives, photograph regimental books with a smart phone, and getting a high enough resolution picture to bring home, put on a big screen (after sticking the thumb drive I downloaded the pics on into a laptop), and then transcribe the original handwriting onto my notebook.  At that point, however, the most useful skill I have is the ability to decipher sketchy cursive based on having learned it from nuns nearly 60 years ago and first performing this particular task as a clerk-typist 20 years later.

Going back to the older forms of office technology now would pretty much shut down any workplace, yet it was very helpful to know as the newer developed.  Writing short notes on memo pads taught brevity and clarity.  Needing to use a typist for formal interoffice communications taught another kind of economy.  Having to track transactions in a manual log or keep accounts on paper spreadsheets taught basic systems analysis and design.  I noticed later in my career that once office automation went beyond major mainframe applications (like personnel and payroll records) and encroached on the day to day work of an office (like updating the status of a budget or personnel request) a certain alienation occurred -- if something wasn't in "the system" then it couldn't be very important or anything anyone could be responsible for.

In that light, sorry to hear about all the accounting firms, but maybe they can take a hint from the Navy.  Learning the more primitive technology not only gives you a backup and makes you more appreciative of the modern approach, but it provides a deeper understanding of how things work and why.  Input screens are equivalent to paper forms.  Excel is equivalent to graph paper and a calculator.  The nature of the work -- the essential requirements of the job of an accountant or any other administrative employee -- is more a constant than we realize, and it helps to know how those before us got it done.

In my penultimate job, in a budget office, the mad genius who set up our detailed system for tracking line items down to the sub-object classification code and project or contract had started 30 years earlier as a GS-3 Payroll Clerk -- a job that probably doesn't really exist anymore except as a complex of algorithms.  For modeling the budgetary impact of workload changes and their reverberations through support offices I created Excel spreadsheets after sketching the relationships on paper and building the formulas from the same kind of simple math I learned playing Avalon Hill board games as a student years earlier.  Both of these efforts would, in other offices, have required contracts costing hundreds of thousands of dollars just to determine feasibility, with a few million more for development and implementation over the succeeding three to five years.  We could do it with equally modern but less cumbersome technology because we'd done similar things long before by hand.

Modern technology is wonderful -- if nothing else it helps office workers get their jobs done in a fraction of the time it used to, leaving more time for other work -- or for gossipy emails, designing glossy adverts for office parties, and downloading porn.  I used it to lift 19th century tactical manuals off Google Books and ransack the Official Records of the War of the Rebellion (on Cornell's "Making of America" site) for original reports on logistics and army administration -- all of which probably made more sense to me for having begun my career in the previous century using systems and techniques that had survived largely unchanged from the one before.

I love technology, old and new.  But it wouldn't hurt those who lean exclusively on the new to learn some of the old, as we are sometimes rudely reminded...