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Computers and complexity

Computers are great. They are ubiquitous, affecting everything we do. They allow us to be more efficient, to multitask, to handle more complexity, but Sheryl Rowling still can't decide whether or not that's a good thing.

Apr 10, 2014 @ 9:00 am

By Sheryl Rowling

Computers are great. They are ubiquitous, affecting everything we do. They allow us to be more efficient, to multitask, to handle more complexity. I still can't decide whether or not that's a good thing.

I spent Sunday preparing tax returns and extensions. The tax laws are so complicated, so different from when I first started. You see, I'm old enough to remember filling out tax forms by hand. When I needed a break from thinking, I would write the taxpayer's name and Social Security number at the top of each page.

When personal computers first came out, we could actually calculate depreciation for multitudes of assets using a cool spreadsheet program: VisiCalc. (We had time for lunch waiting for the software to calculate!) With this handy tool, we now had the ability to determine if the midyear or quarterly depreciation method would be more tax-advantageous. True, the computer enabled us to save our clients money, but it also added complexity.

Over 30 years later, CPAs have to deal with Alternative Minimum Tax, phase-outs, passive loss rules, investment surtax, qualified dividends, investment interest, Roth conversions, special depreciation allowances, and more. As a CPA, I am convinced that I could not properly prepare a moderately complex tax return without a computer. I certainly couldn't prepare scores of returns in one tax season without a computer — or an army of professionals. Would Congress be able to impose such confusing, interdependent and complicated tax rules on the American people absent the existence of computers?

The tax laws are just one example of complexity in our lives made possible — or created — by computers. There are other examples:

• In the old days (Yes, I'm old enough to say that!), we got our news from the local newspaper, AM radio, or the 11 p.m. TV broadcast on ABC, CBS or NBC. Now, we are bombarded by media on the Internet, by e-mail, on over 100 channels on cable TV and from multiple stations in Sirius/XM. We get more input than our brains can handle!

• When we wanted to travel, we called our travel agent. Now, we go online to get the best fare, monitor our airline and hotel points, coordinate schedules with family around the country and book show tickets in front of our computer screens. Is this really easier or does it just add to our "to do" lists?

• We scheduled appointments in our day planners. The ones in pen took priority. Now, we have multiple, integrated calendars online. A synchronization glitch can lead to missed meetings or double-booking.

• We wrote letters and sent cards by mail. Now, we have cellphones, e-mail, text messages, Facebook and LinkedIn. We can't avoid constant accessibility.

For all of the wonderful advances computers have brought, they have also added complexity to our lives. Although computers can process vast amounts of data, our brains are not as able. How much of our stress can be sourced to computers?

Sheryl Rowling is chief executive of Total Rebalance Expert and principal at Rowling & Associates. She considers herself a non-techie user of technology.

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