You Decide: Do the costs and benefits of technology balance?

Published 11:11 am Thursday, December 12, 2019

By Dr. Mike Walden

Modern technology has done wonderful things for us. Take my job – university professor – as an example. I began teaching at North Carolina State University in 1978. I used dust-creating chalk written on a blackboard to illustrate economic concepts to my classes. My books and studies were typed with a typewriter. Corrections were made with a liquid called “white-out.”

The data I used in my statistical analyses were painstakingly key-punched onto cards, which were then run through one of only a few mainframe computers located on campus. Getting the results from any computer run could take days. To read published studies I had to go to the library.

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Over four decades later my work world has changed, and very much for the better. I lecture to students using multi-colored, clearly prepared slides projected onto a wide screen. Students can easily download the slides prior to each lecture. There is no chalk dust to contend with. I type my books and reports and newspaper columns on my desktop computer, where making changes is a breeze.

For my various studies I can often download the necessary data directly from the web. The web is also where I can easily access and read published studies that relate to my teaching, research and outreach programs. And what about the statistical analyses that used to take days to perform? I can now finish them in mere seconds in my office using programs on my computer.

There have been equally significant changes in the way we communicate. In 1978 I could reach out to others in three ways – in person, telephoning or writing a letter delivered by the U.S. Postal Service. Furthermore, if I phoned someone in 1978 and they didn’t answer, I either had to call back later, or – if I was lucky – a colleague or assistant would answer and take a written message.

Often when I was away from my office in classes or meetings, when I returned, my door was covered with paper notes telling me who called, when they called, along with a short, written message.

Of course, like everyone, today I communicate using email, texts and phone calls. The difference with today’s phone calls is that it’s easy to leave a voicemail if the recipient isn’t available.

I believe these technological changes have made my life as a university professor better. I also think I’m more productive. The tech advances are probably a big reason why I’m in my fifth decade of work.

Yet I clearly have seen some downsides of technology in my world. Personal interactions have been reduced. Decades ago I constantly encountered faculty as we interacted with the secretaries who typed our papers and tests and took our phone messages. We’d also have conversations as we delivered our data boxes to the mainframe computers and later when we anxiously awaited the results.

Now each faculty member’s office is a self-contained work room, where reading, writing and analysis can take place without help from another person. More conversations take place in cyber space than in person. I’ve attended meetings where half the attendees were not present in person, instead replaced by their live image via a video camera.

Then there’s the jobs that have been lost. In the old days, my typing was done by secretaries. Secretaries also made and collated copies of handouts for my students. Now, I do my own typing. Also, when I distribute handouts to students, the fancy copy machine makes the copies, collates the pages and staples each result.

Of course, new jobs have been created. We now have campus tech experts helping us with hardware and software issues of our computers. The university also has new positions dealing with cyber-security and protection of student records and faculty work.

Past technological advances have had similar pluses and minuses. The mechanization of farming removed millions of individuals from working on the land. They found jobs in the emerging factories of the early 20th century. Now as modern technology and machinery are replacing humans in the factory, both the country and North Carolina face the challenge of training individuals who would have worked in manufacturing for different jobs.

We’re about to move into a new decade. I have no doubt it will be a decade of vast technological change, some of which we can’t even now conceive. There’s anticipation this new technology will make our lives better, perhaps by lowering the cost of necessities like health care, education and even housing.

But we need to watch for two possible downsides. One is the impact on jobs, and the need for retraining of those losing work to technology. Second is the impact on social interactions, that is, how we relate to each other.

Only then can you – and each of us – decide on the balance of benefits and costs from technology.

Dr. Mike Walden is a William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics at North Carolina State University who teaches and writes on personal finance, economic outlook and public policy.