Monday, September 20, 2010

Unintended Consequences

When the first personal computers appeared they were recognized as the beginning of a revolution. The world would never be the same.

Some industries would disappear or shrink to occupy a tiny niche. New businesses would arise to fill new needs. Some speculated that the paper industry would join the makers of buggy whips. Filing cabinet makers would have no one to buy their products, since all the files would be digital. In the digital world paper would not be necessary.

Nothing of the kind happened of course. If anything, more paper was consumed. Computers didn’t make paper unnecessary. They made it easy to use a lot more paper. Making copies was easy and inexpensive. One keystroke was the difference between making no copies and making twenty. Everybody made twenty.

Better printers encouraged us to use even more paper. The first printers were noisy, slow and expensive. Their dot matrix print was ugly and sometimes barely readable. A machine that slowly ground out pages of poor quality could cost a thousand dollars.

That didn’t last long. The price went down and the quality went up. Soon cheap printers could produce dozens of different typefaces in colors too numerous to count. Small businesses that couldn’t afford professional brochures now could design and print their own.

The paper mills kept running. Computers changed the economy, but not in the ways we expected.

The world is always changing. It often changes in ways we don’t foresee. Fads come into view quickly and fade while we watch. Today’s new reality is tomorrow’s old fashioned absurdity. It isn’t hard to sing the latest tune. It is harder to

know when that song’s day is over and a new melody is in style.
Every generation believes that its parents are old fashioned and its children are immature. It doesn’t occur to them that their parents thought they were immature and their children think they are old fashioned. The world has indeed changed and will continue to change, but not in the ways anyone expects.

Computers did create one new industry. Nobody needed paper shredders before they had computers. Now they are stacked in the aisles at Walmart and Target.

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