The Computer as Blessing and Curse

I always seem to be talking about change, but that’s not unusual. Everyone is talking about change. Technology is driving the change, and most of us are just trying to hang on. Talking about it is the way we’re learning to adapt to it. it. Almost everything we do in daily living is changing in remarkable ways and at remarkable speed.

When I started practicing law in Los Angeles I was a lowly associate in a big firm. A big firm in those days was 33 lawyers. That same firm, the last time I checked, had 520 lawyers. In those days even I, a lowly worm, had a secretary (an executive assistant in today’s politically correct gender neutral parlance). I wrote what I had to write on a long yellow legal pad or filled in the blanks on a printed form used for filing motions. And, when I was done the secretary typed it out on an IBM Selectric, a primitive word processor that could at least store a document and re-type it. Now law firms (and other business entities) function differently. All but the senior partners work without a personal assistant. They draw from a pool of assistants when they need help, but for the most part they draft documents, compose letters, and communicate with clients on their own personal computers. Technology has cut out the middle man (or woman) including the personal secretary and the mailman.

It has also dramatically altered the way we make travel arrangements. It’s still possible to make a reservation on the phone, but it costs more and usually takes more time. My guess is that it will cost even more and possibly take more time in the future. The future is online, but it has it’s drawbacks… This morning I needed to make reservations for three round trip flights – two to East Meets West headquarters in Oakland and one from Seattle to Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City these days) and return. The problem was that only one of them was a straight forward to and from situation. That was the first trip to Oakland – traveling alone. No problem.

The second trip to Oakland, with Marilynn, involved an Alaska Air companion ticket, and in order to get the discount code for the ticket I had to login to the Alaska website. But, although I had a frequent flier number and an Alaska Air Visa, I had never established an online account with them. It didn’t take a lot of time, but it did take some and then I had to wait for a confirmation email that validated the transaction. Then I was able to go back to the website, login, and make the two reservations with the discount code. Slight irritation, but not really a problem – manageable.

The third trip, actually the third and fourth trips, are more complicated. This is where human to human contact can really make it easier. First, the login, followed by the reservation selection process. Seattle to HCMC is more complex than Seattle to Oakland. No airline flies non-stop, so there are a number of choices about when to depart and where to stop. I knew that Northwest/Delta offered the best fare for the dates and times we wanted to travel, because I researched fares yesterday on Orbitz and Travelocity. I also knew, from previous experience with Orbitz, that it is always better to cut out the middleman – there goes another middle person – and deal directly with the airline of choice. So far so good. Northwest on its own website was $100 cheaper than on Travelocity. But, there was a problem. Marilynn and I would be traveling to HCMC together but returning separately on different dates. You can’t do two different reservations in one transaction online, so the process has to be repeated for each ticket.

First, I made my reservation (Seattle – Tokyo, Tokyo – HCMC), and then I went back to to make Marilynn’s. Login again, but this time I had to enroll Marilynn, because she has her own World Perks account. Enroll, wait, receive email confirmation, login again. It takes a little time – again. I repeat the process. I put in the flight cities, departure and return dates, etc. and check to ensure that I am booking her on the same flights that I have chosen for myself. Yup. Put in the credit card info, hit Purchase, and it’s done. But not quite…

I purposely did not make seat selections, because I thought it would be impossible to coordinate online. I would, I thought, give them a call once we had confirmation numbers and ask that we be seated together outbound to HCMC. It didn’t work that way. When the reservation confirmations arrived each one included seat assignments. I tried to solve the problem online, but a series of unsatisfying email form letter responses about how to make seat selections drove me to the phone. After sitting on hold for what seemed a long time a pleasant customer service agent came on and solved the problem. We are seated together to Saigon – at last.

These three or four transactions took almost 3 hours. I know that businesses and individuals are more productive now that we are able to work independently with the help of such extraordinary technology, but Oh my God did I wish for the old days when my secretary called the firm’s travel agent and Shazzam the hard copy ticket showed up the next day by courier. I know we can’t go back to the future, but look at the jobs we could create if we did.

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