The Digital Divide

At some point early on at the Remodeling Show in Baltimore (Oct. 10-12) I was struck by the fact I was surrounded by technology, most of it working only part of the time, if at all. Wi-Fi was not to be had on the show floor, at least not reliably. Now, to be honest, I wasn’t all that concerned because I have neither a smartphone nor a laptop.

Then there were the booth personnel, relentlessly thumbing their smartphones. I used to think these were really important people with a lot of urgent messages – until one of them offered to find his company's PR contact for me and engaged in that very same interminable thumbing behavior. It was then I finally realized most of those people intently staring at their smartphones were just looking for stuff they had lost.

I also realized there is still a digital divide – the haves and the have nots when it comes to technology. I felt sorry for the folks with a modest booth and not enough money in the budget to rent one of those gizmos that reads visitor badges. They were at once apologetic, embarrassed and frustrated when a prospect showed up without a business card and insisted his or her name badge be read.

Techno-Rude Behavior

However, I observed these same low-tech exhibitors were friendly, engaging and eager to talk, while others more endowed with tech gadgets were downright rude. What's with that? Is there a correlation between technology and rudeness? It's something to think about.

Anyway, perhaps that's why I was attracted to the minority of exhibitors with low-tech products that were quietly ingenious and were designed to solve a very specific problem and perform a specialized task. And, refreshingly, not one of them plugged in, ran on batteries or relied on a spotty Wi-Fi connection.

Slicing Denim

For example, I didn't know blue jean insulation (as well as similar types) is difficult to cut cleanly – unless it's compressed.  Bullet Tools of Hayden, Idaho, has device that addresses just that problem. The Magnum Shut-N-Cut compresses the insulation, holds it place, and has a slot for a specially designed insulation knife to slice cleanly through the compressed insulation. The company also has a tool that looks like an oversized pizza cutter but slices instead through rigid foam board – without the need for an electric motor.

Angel Guard Products, Worcester, Mass., has a tool for ripping up decks – without ripping up existing joists. Minimal damage is done to the existing decking material, so it may reused, the company says. It’s a manually operated device with no discernible moving parts.

Another deck tool, the BoWrench from Cepco Tool Co. is a self-locking device to bend deck boards into alignment and hold them in place, hands-free, while they are fastened. The tool also may be used as a tongue-and-groove joining tool. Again, no power cord required.

Training Tomorrow's Remodelers

Also of note at the show, I bumped into Ken Skowronksi of KS Remodelers in Milwaukee, who was there representing not his remodeling company but the National Remodeling Foundation, an organization that, among other things, promotes the education of young people who might otherwise not be aware of opportunities in the remodeling industry – addressing a pressing problem of where new workers are going to come from once veteran craftsmen hang up their hammers. I hadn't known about this group, but Ken told me about the program, gave me some brochures – and didn't scan my badge. Nevertheless, useful information was passed without the aid technology other than a printing press – or perhaps a laser printer or maybe a lowly inkjet model.


Finally, I stopped by the booth of the Baltimore convention and tourism people to ask if they knew where to obtain a box or two of Berger's cookies. Berger's is a Baltimore area bakery whose cookies I had sampled on a previous visit to Baltimore. The person manning the booth, who looked like she had great grandchildren – if not great, great grandchildren – and had lived in Baltimore forever, disappointingly was not familiar with the local bakery. Nevertheless, she diligently looked it up in a phone book – the kind printed on paper – and provided me with a phone number. Then she went back to working a crossword puzzle – with paper and pencil.

(Word of warning to phone-book toting grandmas: Both San Francisco and Seattle have passed ordinances to reduce the distribution of phone books on the grounds they create litter, add to landfills and annoy increasingly wired consumers. For now, a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals recently ruled phone books have the same First Amendment protection as newspapers. I have no doubt, however, that one day phone books will be outlawed in a Fahrenheit 451-like new world where books are banned.)

Regrettably, I was not able to go to the bakery this trip. I had to get to the airport in plenty of time to poke at one – or several – of those “time-saving” electronic self check-in kiosks, the first of which told me I couldn't check in for my US Air flight at the US Air counter, but instead should go to the United counter, where a similar wonder of technology failed to print a boarding pass or checked baggage receipt without human intervention.

Give Me a Nor'easter Any Day

Kind of makes one nostalgic for the old days when the Remodeling Show, really the predecessor to the current one, was held every March in Atlantic City. It was a time when an actual human being handed you your boarding pass, and no one was dumb enough to get on a plane to fly less than an hour to either Baltimore or Atlantic City from Philadelphia when perfectly good motor vehicles were available. A Nor'easter blowing in from the Atlantic back then was way more fun than today's dysfunctional technology and travel logistics.

Meanwhile, back at O'Hare after the show, my car service, unaware US Air had shunted me off to United, was set to go to the wrong terminal to pick me up. Airlines, especially since deregulation, have engaged all manner of partnering and alliancing and going out of business and what not. You can no longer tell which one is about to merge, go bankrupt, lose your luggage or dump you off on another airline not necessarily of your choice.

(I would direct you to an earlier blog I wrote about the importance of branding, calling things by their proper names and making sure your customers know with whom they are dealing – but it seems our website has failed to properly archive that blog. You wouldn't find it, even though technically it's still there.)

Talking to Humans

What to do? About my ride from the airport, I mean. Well, I pulled out my non-smart, five-year-old, $20 cell phone that people no doubt snicker at and called the dispatcher, an actual human being, some 40 miles away, who relayed the message about the terminal change back to my driver, another humanoid, somewhere in the hinterlands of O'Hare – and, holy cow, the technology worked. The driver and car (old-fashioned, reliable internal combustion engine) appeared magically to within a foot or two of the very same exact spot I was waiting. Now, that's technology.

If there's a moral for remodelers in this tale of technological annoyance, it's that certainly you should use technology to reach out to your clients and potential customers, but don't depend on it so much it makes you stupid. When in doubt, talk to somebody the old-fashioned way.

Now, before you can read this, dear reader, I must enter it into a piece of technology called a content management system….  No, on second thought, just send me a self-addressed, stamped envelope and I’ll send you a printed copy – on a piece of authentic plant based fiber known as paper – by return mail.

P.S. While Hurricane Sandy was no laughing matter, techie guru David Pogue’s New York Times post, “How to Keep Electronics Going With No Power,”   provided some comic relief, intended or not.

Complaining about the gasoline powered generator he was fortunate enough to have, Pogue writes, “It’s horribly designed. Just to turn it on, you have to unplug everything, turn on the fuel valve, pull out the choke loop, turn on the master switch, yank the starter, wait a few seconds, push the choke loop back in, and re-plug your appliances. And all of this seems to be explained in 4-point type on page 41,922 of the Owner’s Warnings Book; electron microscope sold separately.”

I don’t know, Dave, that sounds suspiciously like my recent experience replacing a faulty DSL modem and then having to reconfigure my home network to recognize the damn thing. New technology… same as the old technology.