Advancements in technology truly amazing
While thinking about writing this column on information technology and computer applications, I started to reflect on the changes in technology that have occurred since my graduation from college. In 1966, computers were an emerging technology. It was a laborious process to write a program in Fortran, keypunch the cards, and drop them off at the University Computer Center, only to return and find out there was an error. The error would require a card-by-card review and another trip to the Computer Center. You were never allowed to see beyond the window to know what was happening to your cards. Only since the Dilbert cartoon have I begun to realize what may have been happening behind the closed doors. I can also remember purchasing my first handheld calculator, an amazing instrument that could take a square root with one touch of a key.
Now I sit at my desk, my PC providing instant access to my office network, the Internet, and numerous software programs providing for my every need. My Palm Pilot sits quietly in its cradle instantly updated at a touch of my finger. My laptop waits patiently in my briefcase for my next trip from the office, so it can provide me with virtually everything I have in my office while sitting at home or in a distant hotel room. Of course, my cell phone is in its charger preparing for my next trip out of the office. Amazingly, I use every one of these devices to accomplish my work, and sometimes I wonder how I survived without them.
This issue of the Reporter contains articles on Geographic Information Systems (GIS), Computer Aided Drafting (CAD), Intelligent Transportation Systems (ITS), and Pavement Management Systems (PMS), as well as other areas of technology. In a short column, it is difficult to address the many and varied applications of technology in the field of public works. Therefore, I would like to briefly discuss a few of the implications and impacts of technology in providing public works services.
First is the issue of the appropriateness of technological applications to public works. In some cases we get caught up in a technology looking for an application, when we should be evaluating our needs and looking for the appropriate technological solution. This usually leads to simpler and less costly solutions. The computer industry is no different than the automobile industry in creating perceived technological obsolescence and the desire for more sophisticated technology. As public works practitioners, we need to use technology to become more effective and efficient, not just for the sake of the technology.
Secondly, I would like to look at the technological conundrum: whether computers are a blessing or a curse. For instance, e-mail is a very effective means of communication if used appropriately. However, the increased amount of communication by e-mail in some cases can be overwhelming to the point of decreasing our efficiency. Further, information is now so easily developed, accessed, and disseminated, that it becomes difficult to sort what you need to know from what others apparently think you should know. Too much or the wrong kind of information can be as ineffective as too little.
There is no doubt that technology is improving the delivery and quality of public works services. However, it is important to remember that technology is just a tool we use in accomplishing our work and nothing more.