I was watching some show on Discovery or Science or one of those channels the other night when a guy said that “chemistry is the science of change.” Really? That got me thinking about a couple of things. First, do I agree with that statement and second, did that have anything to do with my having been attracted to chemistry in college?
I guess I’m OK with the idea that chemistry is the science of change, I mean there’s even a book with that statement as the title, so it must be true. However that wasn’t the attraction for me. My interest was in analytic chemistry which is more focused on the science of state and attributes. Sure, there are analytic procedures that measure attributes during changes, but I was more interested in relying upon those changes than figuring out new ways to encourage things to change. Deep down inside, I’m not sure that I like change.
Ironically, my undergraduate education led me in a different direction than I had intended and I ultimately pursued a career in computer technology. Tech·nol·o·gy. Yes, a field that most people think is synonymous with change. Again, I’m not sure that I agree with that notion and it’s certainly not what attracted me to the field.
When I began my career, technology wasn’t really changing all that fast. It wasn’t a glacial pace, but it wasn’t the rocket sled on rails that is has become. I first learned how to program in 1967 while connected over a phone line to a computer at the University of Pittsburgh. I never saw the computer I was using. By the time I entered the workforce I was programming or designing systems that ran on very similar computers that were located in a secure facility owned by my company. I never saw some of those computers. A few years passed and I was programming on a “personal” computer that sat on my desk. A few more years and I was programming on networked computers located in a secure room owned by the company I work for. Today I write or design programs that run on portable devices that are connected to virtual computers (via fancy phone lines) in data centers that my company owns or cloud-based data centers that my company rents. Nobody ever sees any of those computers.
Throughout this entire metamorphosis, I’ve actually been doing the same things. Get data from people, test for conditions, do something based on the results of those tests and present manipulated data back to people. I feel more like I’ve undergone Metamorphosis II. So you see; the fact that I don’t like change doesn’t matter – nothing has really changed.
On the other hand, I have introduced change to others. In fact, my boss once told me that I needed to be an “agent of change” which, in case you think that sounds cool, is a thankless task. Thankless because most people are like me, they really don’t want things to change. So, “agent of change” is like “bearer of bad news” or the unlucky messenger in “don’t shoot the messenger.” When I think of all the other ‘agents’ I could be, travel agent, insurance agent, real-estate agent…ok that’s not working, maybe agent of change isn’t the worst kind of agent but trust me, it’s not great.
What 35+ years of being an agent of change has taught me is that it’s not change that people don’t like; it’s the result of change. People don’t like it when things change to a worse state. Almost exactly 80 years ago, we passed the 21st Amendment to the Constitution which repealed the 18th Amendment to the same Constitution. Not only does this illustrate this country’s curious relation with alcohol, but I think it proves that what Andy Warhol said 40-50 years later is true:
“They always say time changes things, but you actually have to change them yourself.”
The ‘you’ in that quote is the agent of change, or me throughout my career. Nudging people from ledgers to spreadsheets and desktops to laptops and iPads doesn’t invoke the same passion as fighting for or against prohibition, but it has its moments.
Back in the 90’s, we had a round of layoffs where I work. After the dust settled, I told one of the senior managers that I was going to miss a certain person and he said “you’re responsible for that one!” I had automated some of the tasks that person had been responsible for. Of course, I had only automated what the manager had asked me to automate, and he decided who stayed and who left, but I still felt bad being the agent of that particular change.
Chemistry can change things for better or worse. Chemistry is melting the ice on my steps right now but it’s also powering the explosives that are going off around the world. Technology can change things for better or worse too. Today we communicate over a wide array of mobile devices but the NSA is listening. We are automating processes we never dreamed could be automated and we are putting more and more people out of work in the process. There will be other jobs, there will be other technologies, there will be other people listening. I guess we have no choice but to do as David Bowie suggested: “turn and face the strain.”