I recently watched the comedy "Idiocracy" with my 11-year-old daughter. Midway through it, she said, "This isn't funny, Mom. I'm scared. This could be my future." I was scared, too. In this supposed-to-be-humorous-but-all-too-plausible vision of the future, people have gotten so dumb that 500 years in the future, a couple of flunkies -- a low-level government employee and a prostitute -- from our era seem like Einstein-level geniuses.
Ruth Farmer, director of strategic initiatives at the National Center for Women and Information Technology, recently gave me a visceral example of how our national failure to produce enough engineers and computer scientists is affecting our culture and economy: In the high-tech mecca that has sprung up around Microsoft in Redmond, she told me, the people who grew up in that geographic area are largely becoming a service industry for foreign-educated high-tech professionals. It gets worse -- from where I sit at the Gripe Line, it appears that even our service industries are being dumbed down.
For example, I recently intervened in a service breakdown that Gripe Line reader Pat experienced with support for Nuance Software's PDF Converter Professional. Frustrated with technicians who were unable to resolve his problem in a timely way, he copied me on one of his emails to support. Since it's what I do here, I forwarded his note and asked for a response.
Nuance responded quickly and resolved the unusual technical problem Pat was having with his large-batch PDF conversions, a dilemma that had until then stumped the company's techs. The company even refunded Pat's money because the product -- and technical support -- had not worked as Pat expected. But Pat pointed out something many of you have said: Why does it take the intervention of the media to resolve ordinary problems?
"The whole episode is typical of what we all see in many hardware and software makers," Pat says. It is so common, he adds, that copying the Gripe Line -- and several other media outlets as well as the the company's high-ranking officers -- has become Pat's standard resolution process.