As the records turn: New technology is means, not an end

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Dave Bretl | October 14, 2013

Most people focus on announcements of new technology. The release of the latest iPhone captures headlines and draws crowds of shoppers to wait, in vigil, around the nearest big-box electronics store. I'm not crazy about camping in the woods, let alone in a Best Buy parking lot, which is probably the reason why I tend to be drawn to news stories reporting the demise of an old technology rather than the announcement of a new one. Prompted by one such a headline, I wrote a column earlier this year about the death of the typewriter. The ink was barely dry on that piece when I ran across an article on the Internet announcing the death of the home stereo system.

For any reader under the age of, say 40, an explanation is in order. It wasn't always possible for one to carry around his entire music collection in a shirt pocket. Before the world went digital, listening to music was hard work. Massive stereo systems, consisting of turntables, tape decks and giant speakers, were required to properly enjoy the latest hits. There were cables and plugs to be reckoned with like “Line in” and “Aux” and miles of speaker wire to be untangled. No college dorm room was complete without at least one of these monstrosities perched on a set of milk crate bookshelves.

A host of digital devices have done in the home stereo. This hardly qualifies as news to any parent who has started a heartfelt conversation with his or her teen, only to notice a blank look on their child's face and wires protruding from their ears. Still, I appreciated reading the stereo's official obituary, because it got me thinking about technology and its tendency to focus our attention on the trees rather than the forest.

I remember back in the days of stereo that some guys would constantly tinker with their stereo systems in an effort to create the perfect sound. It was often the case that the amount of music owned by these stereo aficionados was negatively correlated to the amount of time they spent fussing over their systems. I always thought it was ironic that after spending hundreds of dollars on the latest amps and equalizers, these fellows had only a couple of Supertramp albums, culled from some “cutout bin,” to put on their turntables; to each their own, I suppose. Building a stereo system is a fine hobby, but not necessarily the same thing as listening to good music.

I was reminded of these old stereo buffs when I recently took a day to visit the annual Wisconsin Counties Association convention. It had been a number of years since I attended the event. For a variety of reasons, Walworth County dropped out of the organization a few years ago. We decided to give it another try, however, and rejoined in 2013. My last memory of the WCA was that its member-supervisors were fairly resistant to change. You can imagine my surprise, then, at the most recent convention to see the majority of supervisors toting iPads and computer tablets. The main topic of conversation at most of the break-out sessions was the degree to which each county had achieved a “paperless” county board. With a fervor matched only by the Cold War contest to place a satellite in orbit, WCA members would boast about the date when their county quit mailing out meeting agendas and supporting materials and began providing the information to supervisors, exclusively in electronic form. I didn't have a calculator, but if I would have added up all of the savings in postage and photocopy costs that were alleged at the convention, Wisconsin counties could not only pay for all of those government-issued iPads, but make a big dent in the national debt.

I'm all for streamlining our county's agenda process. I've written on this subject before. We currently distribute six reams of papers to our supervisors, each month, to support the county board and standing committee meetings. There is no question that we could save thousands of dollars by emailing committee agenda packets rather than delivering them in “hard-copy” form. While it is important to save these thousands, it is more important that our supervisors are well-informed when they vote on the myriad decisions that make up the county's $148 million budget.

A number of counties boasted that they made the transition cold turkey; get with the digital program or get off the board. I can't endorse that approach quite yet. There are a number of reasons, besides foot dragging, to explain the reluctance of some supervisors to jump on the bandwagon. Shifting the hassle of printing lengthy documents from the county's high-speed digital copier to 11 ink-jet printers in supervisors' homes is one of them. People also learn in different ways; some can navigate and comprehend electronic documents far better than others. Our agendas and supporting materials, which are created to be read on 8-by-11 inch typing paper, do little to help the cognitive process.

I am looking forward to working with our supervisors in the upcoming year to improve our agenda process. Before we venture too far into that forest however, we need to carefully choose our goal. Computers, like home stereo systems, should be viewed as the means to an end, rather than the end itself. The best stereo system could never turn a bargain bin record into a classic. By the same token, eliminating all hard copy documents won't necessarily ensure a well-informed board.

Dave Bretl is the Walworth County administrator. Contact him at (262) 741-4357 or visit

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