From the telegraph through the television, each new breakthrough has landed in the American marketplace like a stone in a lake, sending up a splash of expectations that over time dissipate into far-reaching but faint ripples.
"The basic pattern," Douglas said, "is an initial flush of enormous optimism and array of utopian hopes, followed by deep disappointment."
It's not that technology doesn't makes things better, she said, it's just that it rarely lives up to the impossibly high expectations Americans tend to set.
At TV's unveiling at the 1939 World's Fair, David Sarnoff of RCA predicted: "It is probable that television drama of high caliber and produced by first-rate artists will materially raise the level of dramatic taste of the nation."
In some ways, TV has done even better than that. It has given everyday people a glimpse of the moon and confronted them with the horrible images of war. But it has also sapped interest in reading, glorified violence and supplanted dinner-table conversation for millions of families.
DJ Brumby used to be a public health officer in the Air Force, but now the 36-year-old Culver City resident is struggling to make ends meet as a writer. For Brumby, who participated in The Times' poll, the computer is an invaluable writing and research tool.
If she is writing an underwater sequence and needs to make sure it's right, she e-mails marine biologists. "Or if I'm trying to set something in a location other than California, I can get ahold of a glider club at a field in Illinois and ask them what the conditions were like this month," she said.
But the computer's greatest application, Brumby said, may be as "a tool for peace in the world."
Conflict, she said, usually stems from a failure to communicate. "With the Internet, you can talk to people anywhere in the world," she said. "It's going to increase communications, and once you understand people, it makes it easier to deal with each other. Black versus white. Christian versus non-Christian. The computer will increase understanding."
But even those who are designing the computers of tomorrow are not so sure that will happen. Donald A. Norman, head of the research laboratory at Apple Computer in Cupertino, raises another possibility.
"Everybody predicts the computer will lead to world peace and better understanding," he said. "I say no, it will lead to better effectiveness of terrorists and counter-society groups.
"Suppose you have one or two people in your community who have weird views about the world," he said. "Normally, they would be completely ineffective. But [computer technology] allows all these people to find each other and communicate. So what would have been one or two harmless cranks can become thousands of people across the world who reinforce their own sickness."
And Norman considers himself a technology optimist.
There is no doubt that computers have had a profound impact on the workplace, making it quicker and easier to do everything from designing rockets to writing this article.
Even among technology skeptics polled by The Times, most acknowledge that the computer is an amazing machine.
"I wouldn't give up my computer for the world," said Kathleen Travers, 39, a computer expert for the city of Los Angeles' Cultural Affairs Department. "I've written a couple of full-length books, and to be able to move a chapter and have it automatically renumber the pages, that is incredibly time-saving. It's a very valuable tool."
But in some ways, she said, the computer has made work less productive because e-mail, voice mail, pagers and other devices make communication so easy and immediate that they carry an endless stream of disruptions.
Few in the poll share these concerns. About half of those surveyed said computers and new telecommunications devices give them more free time, compared to 30% who said technology is stretching their workday. But when computer owners were asked what they use their machines for, 40% mentioned "job-related tasks."
Respondents brushed aside the notion that computers isolate people or eat into family time. Nearly half the respondents said they believe computers bring people and families closer together, even though the most common activities--work, word processing and personal finance--are rather solitary.
Perhaps one of the most telling poll responses came when computer users were asked how much they would miss their machines if they were taken away. About 20% said "some," and nearly two-thirds said "a lot."
Joe Lopez did not have his computer when the poll was conducted. In fact, he only recently found that necklace in the dumpster. But in the short time since then, the machine has already become a fixture in the Lopez household.
His 16-year-old daughter, Michelle, uses the computer for computer class homework and for writing school reports. Sometimes, Joe fires up their free trial subscription to America Online, and the whole family gathers around to watch.