The American Monkey Trap

Using technology in the new standard.

Another one of those Dan’s New Leaf Posts, meant to inspire thought about IT Governance . . . .

The Monkey Trap story may not be new to you.  I first encountered  it in the 1980’s, when I first learned about goal tracking.  The 80’s saw the rise of the “self-improvement industry,” and I consumed a cassette tape a day, as I learned that the automobile could be a very productive place—if you plan your trips.  The metaphor-a story repeatedly told by the likes of Zig Ziglar, Dennis Waitely, and Robert Pirzig-used the Monkey Trap as encouragement to distinguish between what was truly important, and what was not.

In the 18th and 19th century, one trapped a monkey by staking a box to the ground.  The box had a hole in it, just large enough for a monkey’s hand to fit through, unless that hand held a banana.  The monkey prioritized the short-term goal of “eating a banana” higher than the long-term goal of “freedom.”

Fast-forward a few hundred years to the 21st century, to the age when technology does not have to work.  I call this new standard–that technology does not have to work–the American Monkey Trap.  My coworkers share my frustration at this standard, whether they want to or not.  If you were to listen in on our team meetings, you would sometimes hear me say, “I come from an age when technology worked!”

And about a month ago, in a fit of frightened frustration, I found myself declaring, “the only thing that works anymore is airplane mode.”

I said that to myself while my car was parked on the side of a road, and while I looked at the Bluetooth setting on my hands-free device.

The American Monkey Trap started during the advent of cell phones, when consumers first started tolerating technology that does not have to work.  We woke up one day to find ourselves laying next to a cell phone on the bedside stand.  We didn’t realize what was happening.  In the late 1990’s, we would never call a Client from a cell phone, because there was a good chance we’d hang up on that Client.

In 2002, Verizon Wireless even started running commercials asking over and over, “can you hear me now?”  The commercial established the standard, by establishing “of course.” Verizon openly admitted that cell coverage was, of course, less than 100%– even with Verizon—but hey, at least they were out there testing it, and their technology worked more than most because of their tests.

The actor, Paul Marcarelli, kept his job as the “token-coverage-tester” until 2009.  That’s how long it paid to establish “of course.”  Marcarelli recently became famous again in 2017, fifteen years after his debut, because he now declares Sprint to be “almost as good as, and much cheaper” than Verizon.

Of course!

100% is no longer even a goal!

I have been using Verizon for many years now, knowing that there are going to be many pockets of Indiana where you still cannot “hear me now.”  And while I consider Verizon to be one of the best of the bunch for my travel habits, I expect and accept that my cell coverage will NEVER be 100%.  I now call my Clients while on the road.  (I have to: remember, I want the automobile to be a productive place!)  And I routinely hang up on them now.  My Clients forgive me, because they too have been taught that technology does not have to work.

We all accept this standard.

I am so frustrated by this that I find myself yelling at my cell phone on a regular basis, like I did last week, when I realized the only thing that worked reliably on my cell phone was airplane mode.

Prior to the advent of the American Monkey Trap, whenever you bought something that didn’t work, you would be mad about it.  You would take it back to the seller.  The seller would make you prove that what you were returning truly didn’t work. And, there was a good chance you would never return to that place.

Nowadays, we routinely return defective products-almost anywhere-with no questions asked.  All big-box stores have special places where you stand in line to return your defective product.

You are not required to prove the merchandise doesn’t work anymore.  That’s because a high percentage of products we purchase simply do not work out-of-the-box.  It’s not worth the retailer’s time to check.  They have return policies with their wholesalers, who expect a certain percentage of returns because, of course, it’s the American Monkey Trap!

Now, you may be asking yourself, “why is Dan calling this new standard ‘The American Monkey Trap?’”

Before I go there, let’s keep in mind that I work in information security.  I founded infotex in 2000, when the joke was, “to secure  a technology, don’t use it!”  Our industry organizes around a monthly cycle initiated with Patch Tuesday.  This is the day Microsoft fixes the software that didn’t work out-of-the-box; software Microsoft sold to us with hundreds of security vulnerabilities, some costing our economy billions of dollars.

And in the American Monkey Trap, some technologies endanger our lives.

Children buy “things” for the Internet of Things, apps for their smartphones, toys for their tools, that simply do not do what is promised when they are purchased.  While I could list examples of technologies that do not work, legal risk assessing has caused me to refrain.  Unfortunately, most technology providers spend the same on lawyers that they spend on quality control.

But think back to your own experience: of the last dozen technologies you’ve acquired, at least half of them did not work the way you thought they would, out-of-the-box.  And if you would take the time to read the user license agreement that you click yes to every single time you put an app on your phone, you would see you are often agreeing that the technology does not have to, of course, work.

I realize there are many reasons why technology can’t be 100%; lots of moving parts now getting more and more complex.  And I also realize it is very hard for us to put it down.  We sometimes end our days feeling as if we banged our head against a wall of problems, all day long.  But we continue to use technology blindly.  In fact, there are ongoing studies about the effect of technology on our brains, some positing that certain technology uses cause the secretion of endorphins when they are used.  So what is it our culture is missing?  What is the answer to our frustration?


We do not have to use technology.


In the mid-1980s, I started a company called Synthetic Marketing Concepts.  Among other things, SMC published “The Video Guide Magazine,” which reached 50,000 in circulation.

“Cut and Paste” was what SMC did for a living, and we spent a fortune on what was called “typesetting and artwork.”  We had all the trappings of a publisher . . . wax machines, ad-slicks, layout boards, and waxed typesetting.

We’d give each other fancy X-Acto knives as gifts!

The entire point of the magazine was to facilitate the rental of those movies.  New releases would make the magazine interesting, and drive customers to the video stores.  We’d then be able to “give legs” to older titles by repeating them in subsequent releases of the magazine.

Producing the magazine was like piecing together an elaborate puzzle, using “rubylith” to mark places where the printer would “paste-in” artwork collected from the Hollywood studios by our sister company, a video chain.  The printer–which back then was a company, not a peripheral–would photograph our layout boards, and then “paste in” photographs of the artwork.  For our magazine, each layout board was photographed four times . . . using filters for red, green, blue, and black.  Preparing our layout boards for this “four color process” was tedious, and for productivity’s sake, we used pre-waxed mastheads, headers, typesetting, and logos. We’d save typesetting from one issue to use for the next, since it was so expensive.  Headers, headlines, movie logos,  and captions were pasted on the walls of our offices.

We had to wait until the last possible minute to “close” the monthly magazine, to ensure each issue included the most recent releases.  The production cycle centered on the mailing date, which was always a Tuesday so the magazine would be in the homes before the weekend.  Our artists would work all month collecting and classifying information sent by the studios, prioritizing prominence based upon marketing reports provided by the video store chain.  We’d work on iteration after iteration of the magazine, holding rubylith space for the big titles we were anticipating, that would be announced right before we could make no more changes to the magazine.  A weekend a month was the magazines, so that we’d be able to time delivery of the layout boards to the printer on Monday, for deliver to the post office by Tuesday.  And we left a day for unforeseen problems (or big release months).

Then, in 1987, we purchased a brand-new Macintosh SE with a 20 MB hard drive, an Apple-Writer, and a Linotronic scanner that would scan images directly to floppy disk.  The three tools cost, with all software, $14,000.  And that was a steal, we were told.

Gone were the paste-up boards; gone were the layout-boards.  Most importantly, gone was the rubylith!  The weekend before the mail date, we’d just take the most recent information (always sent on a Friday), scan it with our Linotronic to add it to our library of floppy disks, and by Saturday night (sometimes early Sunday morning if there were a lot of new releases) our layout boards would be ready for the printer. With the digital printing process, our productivity was substantially improved!  (Again, back then, the technology worked!)  In fact, our productivity was so improved that we had to find something else to do with all our free time!  Thus, we began offering consulting services to local businesses.  We were “the Desktop Publishing Experts,” and we taught local businesses how to increase productivity with desktop publishing tools.

One Monday morning, I arrived at the office to find the front door unlocked.  The magazine was due to the printer at noon, and I when I opened the office door, I could hear shouting coming from the SMC offices.  As I made my way through the building, I heard our lead artist using several different forms of profanity.  When I arrived in his office, I saw him sitting right in the middle of a paper-strewn floor, next to the printer, with the Macintosh moved over to where he was sitting.  His wrinkled clothes belied that he had been trying all night long to finish the production.  He had stopped his profanity, to a degree, knowing I was there.

“Good morning,” he said through clenched teeth.

“What’s wrong?” was my reply.

He pointed a shaky finger to the most recent printout of the page he had printed at least a hundred times.

“I can’t get this . . . darn . . . logo to move,” he said, pounding his index finger on an unfinished layout board.  “It should be here.”

I could tell he had been trying to move a logo about 1/32 of an inch, in order for it to be perfectly lined up with the movie description.

“Instead,” he whined, “it insists on being right here.”

He showed me the methods he was down to, printing four more pages that he just tossed to the floor.  I had him try one more way again, but quickly realized he was far more versed in the system than I.

Then I had a thought.  Stepping over the papers on the floor, I looked on the back of the paste-up table, behind the unused t-square, where the old-fashioned method of crafting a magazine already had a layer of dust.  I reached over and grabbed one of the old waxed logo slicks, and placed it on the active layout board, right where it would align with the ad slick.  I looked at the lead artist, who had stood up and was leaning on the layout table, and I said “maybe a desktop publishing expert knows when not to use desktop publishing.”

Fast forward again to 2017, when half of the technology we buy does not work, and you’ll get my point.  We Americans have our hands on the banana, and the banana is technology.  We can’t let go of the technology.  We prioritize technology over freedom.

Of course it doesn’t work.

Of course, it’s hard to let go.

Of course, at work, we have less control over the answer to the question: “Do I really need to use this?”

But what about at home?  Do we really need to use Facebook to communicate with our family and friends?  Do we need to use Twitter to express ourselves politically?  If we aren’t happy with the way we feel when using social media, maybe we need to go of the banana.

Meanwhile, the American Monkey Trap is actually killing people.  Students are walking into moving buses as they finish a text message, and drivers are killing themselves and others as they fight with their cell phones.

I was inspired to write this article while parked on the side of the road, looking at the Bluetooth settings on the device that was supposed to save me from stupidity . . . from the banana.

I know better than to text and drive.  Years ago I made a rule – no typing words- and I am good at following this rule.  But one day–just last month–I found myself being “one of those people,” swerving into the oncoming lane as I tried to get my hands-free Bluetooth device to answer an incoming call.

That was when I realized I could have killed some innocent person . . . a family!  That was when I created my Road Rules.  That was when I realized:  the most reliable part of this cell phone is airplane mode.

And that was when I realized: the next time you get into your car, look at your cell phone and ask yourself, “do I really need to hold onto this banana?”

Original article by Dan Hadaway CRISC CISA CISM. Founder and Managing Partner, infotex

Dan’s New Leaf is a fun blog to inspire thought in the area of IT Governance.




2 Responses

  1. Very timely and very true in my experience. Also, thank you, for the closing paragraphs. I personally needed this reminder.

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