Going Digital

By Norman Boucher / March / April 1999
November 14th, 2007

Driving across campus a few weeks ago, I saw something that both amused and unsettled me. It was one of those days that lie poised for ambush in a New England February, when the expected cold gives way for twenty-four or forty-eight hours to an unexpected warmth. Crocuses poke an inch out of the ground, and cardinals begin to sing. Then, as suddenly as this weather arrives, it vanishes.

It was on a day like this that I saw a student riding a bicycle along Hope Street while talking on a cell phone. My first reaction was disbelief, closely followed by concern for the young woman's safety. But then, as I drove along, I began to think about the strange juxtaposition of technologies I had just seen.

There was something classic and strangely new about this young woman pedaling along the edge of campus on an unseasonably warm day, holding the handlebars of her bike with the fingers of her left hand while her right cradled the cell phone. Seeing the phone, an observer could easily have missed the bicycle. Yet there it was, two wheels, metal tubing, a chain, and a couple of sprockets, all assembled into a device for transferring energy from legs to wheels. A masterwork of elegant simplicity, a technology so basic and so accomplished that it hasn't changed much in more than a hundred years. Yet owning a bicycle in 1999 is no exercise in nostalgia. It's as useful now as it was in 1899.

Let's say a bicycle is a loose metaphor for the pre-digital world. A cell phone, on the other hand, is entirely a creature of the digital age. It's a miraculous thing, really, allowing you talk to someone in Saigon while you're tanning on the beach or watching the Red Sox at Fenway Park. Its power and appeal are inescapable at the moment, as the student on the bicycle was unwittingly reminding me.

I admit to having resisted a lot of this technology, which seems vaguely intrusive and threatening. I stubbornly wear an analog watch, and encourage my daughter to do the same, but I realize this has become a sentimental gesture, and not much more. The message from the young woman on the bicycle is: deal with it. It's time to get beyond the question of how intrusive digital technologies can be; intrusive or not, cell phones and the like are not only here, they're ubiquitous.

The cover story of this issue a perfect example of the real benefits of this sort of technology. Critics of the digital age argue that all the information made available by technology gives us only an illusion of power. More wisdom does not necessarily follow more information. So much information is available, in fact, that we can't possibly make sense of it all; it threatens to overpower us.

Well, maybe. But as the medical researchers depicted in "The Prescription Paradox" make clear, the same technology storing all this information has given us the tools to extract new insights from it. By asking various questions of their database about the elderly and prescription medications, these Brown faculty members and their colleagues at other schools expected to learn which treatments work best of all. Instead, to their dismay, they found far too many cases where treatments weren't working at all, where a needed medication was not being given, or where an ineffective drug was being prescribed. By looking at more information than anyone had been able to examine before, the researchers for the first time could quantify trends like these. They discovered a pattern of treatment in need of change.

Whether cell phones will still be around in 2099 is anyone's guess. But I'm willing to bet that men and women then will still be looking for insights into ever-copious arrangements of information. Perhaps by then they will have learned to glide as easily through them as a student riding a bicycle on a day when all hopes seem somehow within reach.

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Related Issue
March / April 1999