Have we become slaves to computer systems?

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 04/92 item 02 - scanned

For over 26 years, computers have been good to me. Working in this exciting and dynamic industry has given me more or less continuous interest and fascination. Its rewards have helped me nurture a wife, three children, a dog and a bank manager. Yet I still have tremendous misgivings about some aspects of the business, especially the effect that computerisation has on us as human beings.

Billions of man-hours were spent in the 1980s on learning and using personal computers, yet a recent report suggests that white collar productivity actually dropped during that time. I have to confess that this puzzles me. Perhaps the learning time was too long or, maybe, having learned how to use software, users spent too much time fine-tuning their work instead of getting on with the next job.

Adam Osborne. a computer guru in the late 1970s and early 1980s, used to say: "Adequacy is sufficient, everything else is irrelevant." This might not sell many motor cars or refrigerators, but it might be worth bearing in mind the next time you're deciding exactly which colour to put on those bars in the bar chart.

In the days of the typing pool, work was often marked up and returned for retyping several times. Now, with word processors, changes can be made in moments and only the affected words need to be retyped. I can't believe that this hasn't resulted in massive productivity improvements. Perhaps the problem lies with individuals doing much of the typing that used to be done by the pool. And perhaps they also have a fine-tuning problem.

The spreadsheet has transformed the lives of the bean counters and ordinary managers who used to hate doing budgets and analyses. The database has improved productivity in many sales, marketing and service activities. A touch of the key, and all the customer information is in front of you. I could go on - desktop publishing, computer-aided design, computer graphics and desktop video. Each of these developments changes the way we work. We get better results faster, once we've mastered the product and learned how to stop somewhere between adequacy and perfection.

Work is moving from skilled specialists to less skilled generalists. The boss now types his own memos, the typesetter has been replaced by a combination of electronically filed copy and DTP software, and the production of presentation slides has moved from the art department to the desktop. Users now do things which were once the domain of specialists.

I believe we all contribute to the problem. We can turn our hands to jobs we wouldn't have dreamed of tackling in the pre-computer days. This suggests that we're either doing new work (good) or we're displacing some other poor sod (bad). Apart from the effect on unemployment, I'm concerned that computers might be speeding up the pace of life beyond our capacity to cope. Thousands of major companies have given their employees desktop computers and welded them into a company-wide network. This brings huge benefits to the company. Problems can be shared and resolved without the need for meetings. Meetings, when needed, can be scheduled to fit mutual gaps in people's electronic diaries. But individuals are increasingly being driven by the computer and less and less by personal desires. Increasingly, people are becoming simply a peripheral to the computer system. A bit of mobile, thinking flesh that has to do something the computer can't do... yet.

The other day, I watched a JCB operator transferring a pile of rubbish into the back of a lorry. He was operating a mass of levers and was doing a very skilful job. Then I realised that all this chap's skills would be worthless if someone had the wit to replace the knobs and levers in his cabin with a dataglove, as used by the virtual reality brigade. A movement of the hand could be directly translated into movements of the hydraulic arm and its grab. The result? Anyone could use a JCB instinctively.

We'll soon be hearing about workflow applications which manage the routing and delivery of tasks over an organisation's network. The computer monitors individuals and ensures that appropriate work is always queued up waiting for them. As jobs are finished by one function, the software passes them to the next in sequence. This is great for office efficiency but, once again, people have become slaves to the demands of the computer system. The chats at the filing cabinet and the chance encounter in the corridor are a thing of the past.

When the personal computer revolution began, we thought the machines would free us, not enslave us. We must remember that we are human beings first and computer peripherals last.