From the September 2006 issue of Research Magazine • Subscribe!

September 1, 2006

Man Versus Machine

Technology is our friend, right? That's what I've always heard anyway. Given a recent experience, I may reserve judgment for a while.

Like many of you, one of my favorite activities in the world is sitting through a Continuing Education course for my securities license. I'm always game when it comes to expanding my extensive knowledge base -- if I don't have anything better to do. Well, my firm recently gave me a date and a time when, apparently, I didn't have anything better to do.

With my appointment to study firmly in ink, I slowly drove to my local Sylvan Learning Center to dabble in some good old-fashioned computer-based learning. It had been a while since I entered one of these establishments, and, by the looks of the place, they hadn't upgraded the computers since the last time I was there.

The computers were big old boxes, and the monitors were anything but flat and sleek. The monitor at my workstation actually filled me with nostalgia -- it was the exact same size of the first car I ever had, a 1968 Chevy Impala.

My first job was to sign in with the pimply-faced manager. He handed me a highly coveted No. 2 lead pencil and some blank paper for notes. He then sat me in front of the Impala and showed me how to start the thing. In a matter of minutes, I would be cruising down the learning highway.

I asked him how many right answers I had to get to pass. Mr. Pimples looked right at me and said, "It doesn't matter. If you get a wrong answer you can guess again." (At that moment, I knew my oldest son would have a career in financial services.) I then began to calculate how long it would take to simply select every answer before the question was read. If my ciphering was correct, I could be finished in 43 seconds.

It's funny how the human mind works. Once I knew it didn't matter what my answers were, my whole mindset changed. Instead of trying diligently to come up with the right answer, I diligently tried to see if I could beat the machine and get out of there faster.

If I actually listened to the entire question, I reasoned, I could be there all afternoon. It was then I went into Jeopardy mode. I began to answer the question before the computer finished asking me. A, B, C, D, E . . . I pressed furiously. The video and audio stuttered in confusion. As I pounded the heck out of the keyboard, I half-expected a nun to come up from behind me and whack my knuckles with a ruler.

For the next hour and a half, it was man versus machine. I kept trying to figure a way around the computer; the computer kept messing with my head. And, just as I was about to hit my breaking point, it was over. A little message popped up on the screen and said that my session was successfully completed.

As I walked out of the testing room, I couldn't help but feel a bit dissatisfied. As much as it pains me to say, the old Impala won. It took everything I had to dish out and still completed its goal: It made me sit there for two hours. On the bright side, I don't need to be educated for another two years. By then, I'm hoping the testing facilities will have gone through a major upgrade -- and the monitors will at least be down to the size of my second car, a sporty '76 Dodge Aspen.

-----

BILL MILLER was once a mildly amusing comedian and former recruiter for a leading independent broker-dealer; he now works as an industry wholesaler and can be reached at writingbill@mac.com.

Reprints Discuss this story
This is where the comments go.