17.502 ironies of the productivity claim

From: Humanist Discussion Group (by way of Willard McCarty willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk)
Date: Tue Jan 06 2004 - 04:13:07 EST

               Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 17, No. 502.
       Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London
                     Submit to: humanist@princeton.edu

         Date: Tue, 06 Jan 2004 09:05:21 +0000
         From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
         Subject: ironies of the productivity claim

The following is to alert you (if you need alerting) to an important book
that, although it's been around for nearly a decade, I have just stumbled
on: Thomas K. Landauer, The Trouble with Computers: Usefulness, Usability,
and Productivity (Cambridge MA: MIT Press, 1995). Attached below is a
snippet from an insightful review article, "Virtual Machines, Virtual
Infrastructures: The New Historiography of Information Technology", by P.
N. Edwards, which appeared in Isis (1998) but is available online, under
Book Reviews, at http://www.si.umich.edu/~pne/. (And while you're there,
see also his "Think Piece" under Columns and Editorials.)

>The Trouble with Computers... may be the most important book about
>computers to appear in this decade. One reason is that Landauer zeroes
>in on the question most important to commercial users: payoff.
>Landauer tries to sort out the causes of the so-called productivity
>paradox in computerization. Productivity, in economics, is a measure
>of workers' output per hour; the economic boom of the industrial era is
>generally credited to the productivity improvements provided by
>mechanical automation. The paradox is that despite over $4 trillion
>spent on computing in the United States since 1960 -- and current annual
>expenditures of about 10 percent of GNP -- the rate of productivity
>growth in the U.S. economy declined in the early 1970s and has never
>rebounded to its 1950s highs. In the sophisticated financial sector,
>where computerization began in the mid- 1950s, a dollar invested in
>information technology in 1973-83 produced just one dollar of output a
>zero return on investment. If computers are really the revolution that
>will end the mechanical age, why has this colossal outlay failed to pay
>Economists have been worrying about this problem for well over a decade.
>Its causes are complex, and information technology inefficiencies are
>only one. Nevertheless, a survey of the economics literature convinces
>Landauer that the paradox is real, despite the excuses offered by a
>few optimists to explain it away. He then draws the bold and necessary
>conclusion: computers don't work very well. They are hard to use,
>unreliable, and often applied where they offer few benefits. Worst,
>businesses rarely incorporate computers into a comprehensive
>sociotechnical design process. Landauer analyzes a fantastic array of
>all-too-familiar situations where computers fail, confuse, and generally
>wreak havoc upon systems they are supposed to improve. There is a
>salutary bubble-bursting quality to Landauer's brilliant discussion of
>examples; reading this book will certainly darken your view of computer
>Landauer divides the history of computers-in-use into two main phases:
>an automation phase (roughly 1960-1972) and a decision support phase
>(1973-present). Here Landauer locates one explanation for the
>productivity puzzle. Decision support -- computer assistance in
>organizing and processing information for people to use -- has proven
>extremely complex. Attempts directly to automate information-handling
>jobs generally don't work. Instead, these jobs need to be approached as
>problems in the organization of organizations. Another issue is the
>overuse of information technology: too many reports, too much detail.
>Finally, like Rochlin, Landauer notes the nightmarish integration
>problems created by the tangled web of incompatible legacy systems.

Now if productivity is not the point of computing (as would seem rather
obvious for academic work), then what is?



Dr Willard McCarty | Senior Lecturer | Centre for Computing in the
Humanities | King's College London | Strand | London WC2R 2LS || +44 (0)20
7848-2784 fax: -2980 || willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk

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