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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Information Technology

Once in a while during my routine scanning of numerous trade magazines each month, there is a gem glowing from the morass of pages. Such a clearly candid article appeared in the Feb. 18, 1991 issue of Computer World by Dennis E. Noonan. He said what probably has been percolating in the mind of many work station supervisors overseeing all that office computer equipment.

Let his words speak for themselves: “For the last decade, we’ve all been awaiting the fulfillment of predictions about the labor saving potential of sexy new information technologies. There have been a host of them — office automation, desk-top computing, expert systems, natural language, artificial intelligence, integrated networks, relational databases — and they’ve all promised to make a significant impact on the daily lives of business users.

“Well, the predictions and promises were partly right. There was an impact. Recent studies have indicated that the work week for the typical white-collar professional is 2O longer than it was ten years ago. Vet during this same period, white collar productivity has declined.

“Although most office workers have routine access to a computer terminal or a personal computer, the majority of knowledge workers are working harder today to accomplish less.”

Driving his Point further, Noonan asks “what happened to the four-day work week, the paperless office and the electronic cottage? If modern technology was supposed to increase productivity, then how come everyone is more stressed-out and overloaded than ever before. Why are desks cluttered with laser-printed copies of electronic-mail messages? Why is everyone in a meeting when you call them? Why are users still complaining? Is this productivity?”

Of course it isn’t. What is going on is a very costly game of technological addiction promoted by the office automation industry with their graphic assurances, their redundant software sales pitches and their never-ending ability o immerse their customers into delusionary thinking about being modern. computer users are buying more and more to do less and less ever more speedily. aught up in the technical jargon, they become caught in a miasma of unproven means that never deliver their objective ends.

Just as it took too long for companies to recognize the serious carpal tunnel syndrome affecting large numbers of computer operators, it is taking them too long now to reduce VDT radiation emissions and to accelerate the ergonomics of adjusting these machines to their human operators for proper position and lessened eye fatigue.

I’ve noticed that with each passing year, even small computerized offices need more and more the advice of computer consultants to figure out this or that software glitch or problem. Pretty soon a whole new career of fulltime computer software specialist will be a fixture even in offices of less than 40 computer terminals. And so grows the gross national product. But not the productivity and the output.

Noonan writes that “somehow along the way, the software development establishment seems to have successfully convinced the buying public and technophiles who write product reviews that software has a right to be defective. ‘New software always has few bugs,” we are smugly and patronizingly informed. ‘Software design is a very complex activity instead of systems that are easy to install and safe to use, too many vendors are going in the other direction.

Noonan observes that “many users today still can’t get at the information they need without learning how to write code. Databases can’t talk to each other. Response time on local-area networks is getting to be ‘just like the old days.’ There are too many technical complexities for most business people to deal with.”

Noonan is on the edge of exposing the great irony of office automation — that too many users are letting themselves fall into a computer high by vendors, who see more profits through upscaling, by making sure their customers don’t see the ends for the means.