By Steve Kelman

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More stuff that's not around any more

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Just before Christmas, I wrote a blog about phrases that may have disappeared from everyday language, which I encountered reading a 1961 novel about suburban life in the fifties called Revolutionary Road. I invited blog readers to ask friends, and in particular young people, which of these phrases they knew. I tried this myself with college-age students I met over the holidays, and discovered a mixed bag. Many of the young people had heard many of these expressions – such as “crummy,” “dopey,” or “loot” – but only through hearing parents, or even grandparents, use them. I was informed that “dope” as an adjective – as in the phrase “this is dope” – now can be used to mean great or cool, almost the opposite of its old meaning.

Well, also over the holidays I read a column in my local newspaper – I don’t even mean The Boston Globe, I mean the Concord Journal – discussing a topic very relevant to winter, certainly in Boston. The article pointed out that you never see kids come around anymore after a snowstorm who want to be hired to shovel your driveway or sidewalk. I had forgotten all about that: when I was young, I did this myself, and there were always a lot of kids doing this. You never see it anymore, or at least we don’t in Boston.

This got me suggesting to myself another party game, about parts of everyday life that have disappeared. I immediately thought about an incident that took me aback in my management class for Kennedy School master’s students a year ago. I was teaching a case from the early 1990’s on a customer service initiative in the New York City subway system. The specific problem in the case involved somebody who had been named “station manager,” the person in charge of the overall customer experience at one of the subway stops – and was trying to get an additional turnstile installed to reduce lines and fare evasion. When I casually used the word “token” in class – a word also frequently appearing in the case – a student raised her hand and politely asked, “Professor Kelman, what’s a token?” I was blown away that twenty-somethings didn’t even know about that old subway technology. (For the benefit of young blog readers, a subway token is a little coin-like thing used to pay fares.)

A third example that comes to mind as I write this post has larger social significance. Thirty or 40 years ago it was fairly common for workers, say in the auto or steel industries, or subway employees (which is what got me thinking about this) to go on strike. Strikes would sometimes last for tens and tens of days, with workers carrying picket signs outside factories or offices. These days, of course, strikes have not disappeared entirely, but they are drastically less a part of our lives than they were before.

To think about stuff that isn’t around anymore in IT is far too easy an exercise, given the pace of technological change. But it is interesting to think of some of the unlamented features of buying IT in the government that are not around anymore. Before the government credit card became common in the 1990s, it would often take several months to receive a desktop computer or even some computer peripheral. The order had to go through the procurement shop, where it stayed in somebody’s inbox until processed, and the delivery time under the government contract was often several weeks. (A political appointee I knew at the beginning of the Clinton administration in 1993 waited three months to get a $40 dictaphone.)

For some kinds of purchases, you could use something called the “imprest fund,” which was actually cash kept in a box somewhere for emergency purchases. Major IT systems (in those days inside the government it was called by the government-unique acronyms “ADP” or “IRM,” which stood for “information resources management”) had to be approved by GSA before an agency could begin to buy them, even after the spending had budget approval. GSA looked to make sure you were following the procurement rules, a process that added several months or more to the procurement cycle.

So while today's IT acquisition is far from perfect, we've come a long way. And I'd welcome reader thoughts about other blasts from the past.

Posted by Steve Kelman on Jan 08, 2014 at 10:34 AM


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