Computers, Timesavers or Timekillers?

I'm sure the older readers remember the initial promise of computers: they'll save time, CPA's will be obsolete, you'll only work three hours a day, paper is dead, etc. I remember these predictions and I'd like to find the prognosticators and ship them to Antarctica where they can all predict just how long it's going to be until their blood turns to slush thereby preventing oxygen from reaching the vacuous cranium that conceivably contains some amount of gray matter. Of course were oxygen reaching the gray matter of these prognosticators, there is a good chance they never would have made such wildly fanciful predictions. They left a crucial factor out of their technological pseudo séance, they forgot that the people who cut checks like to see the folks they cut checks for working.

Imagine you're an engineer, I know it hurts, but go ahead. Imagine it's 1972 and you show up for work with wide lapels, funky colors, white shoes and a slide rule. Your boss, engineer supreme, wants a feet per minute analysis of line x compared with projected volume of project z. So you work it out, it takes four hours (but you stretch it to eight, cause you like coffee and the guy who runs the lapel shaper has a couple of new jokes). The next day the boss asks for a revised estimate based on worst case numbers, again the process is repeated and you learn the lapel shaper is looking for a new dog. Hyperlink forward to 2001, a spreadsheet does the math and the revision is just a matter of replacing two or three numbers. So now you've done two full days of work in two hours. Our prognosticators would have you believe that the boss is going to say "Head on home, you've done a two days worth of work!" So in the ideal word of the futurists you're either playing golf or bar-b-cueing at noon every day. The reality is that the boss says, "What would happen if the price of polyester went up by a nickel per yard?" Of course when he gets that analysis he is going to ask something else. And this will continue until you're washing his car. Extra time off, zero. Extra time spent, zero. It's a wash.

Things are probably a little worse for non-engineers. Suppose you're a supervisor at Swills Products. The old IBM XT shows up and you get a lot of promises from upper management about saved paperwork and saved time. Of course, the supposed time savings never materialize but that doesn't stop the guy two levels up from thinking you're kicking back and listening to the radio. It also doesn't stop the engineer from asking you to collect some more data for some obscenely inane analysis. Of course this is piled on top of other supervisory duties, and timesaving computer locks up so much that you end up filling out the paperwork by hand and trying to record it for three hours after your shift ends. For the supervisor, he's just added an extra three hours a day to his shift and even worse upper management probably made him salaried thinking he would never get overtime again. Fortunately it didn't take long before people realized that computers where not the end all be all that the early futurists predicted. Sure the engineers were stuck doing increasingly obscure analyses, but most other people were able to cut back to a normal semi computerized workload.

Now computers have reached the level predicted by the futurists. With enough work and a little cleverness you can set up your computer to do those mundane tasks that eat up so much time. Even a Wintel running with whatever version of windows it shipped with can be extremely useful. So yeah, now you probably could get a lot more work done (cause, you're not getting the extra time off). But you're probably still getting the same amount of work done. How could things remain status quo with such a powerful tool perched atop your desk? Fortunately the technology and customization that allows most of us to be more productive arrived with the technology necessary to access the Internet. So any extra time you gained you can now blissfully fritter away checking stocks, the latest Joe Cartoon offering, surfing for porn and all the other things that make promise of computers a zero sum game. Don't feel bad about the lost potential productivity, after all if you were really to do thirty percent more work, do you think your boss is going to pony up thirty percent more dough? Or would you suddenly be doing more and more petty busy work. You'd end up changing the output font to Helvetica from Arial; you'd have to add a blue line between employee names, etc. If you really want to get ahead, get the computer to do all the mundane tasks you can think of and spend the rest of your time coming up with clever descriptions of project status. "The Robinson report is post gestation, it should be fully actualized within the week." Your boss will love it.