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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > PCs and Productivity

Earlier this Spring I wrote a column on the overselling of office computer equipment and the underinforming of their negative characteristics. The PCs, their attachments and endlessly “new” software, produce more than carpal tunnel syndrome and eye fatigue. Increasingly they are producing questions as to what the conventional office workplace is getting for these spiraling costs, unyielding, trivial complexities and dependency on the ever present consultants in charge of figuring out the workaday problems.

Generally speaking, the average white collar professional is working 2 0 longer than ten years ago and white collar productivity has declined, according to Computer World magazine. This technology is being questioned finally in terms of its declared purpose — productivity – (which is supposed to improve consumer services), and not just its immediate convenience in avoiding erasures, white-out ink or other more automatic, though outdated, ways to correct typing mistakes.

A prominent economist, writing his book on a PC, tells me that he is beginning to wonder whether it is such an advantage over his electric typewriter. Seems the PC is getting too complicated, makes his editor behave more irritatingly and even affects his first draft writing discipline.

Though I am hearing more second thoughts about PCs and software escalators, the more remarkable message is the vast diversity of reasons people are relating. PCs have impacts alright but in many directions beyond the technical and economic; they have safety, psychological and consumer

deception dimensions. One brainy scholar, who learned to use a PC at age 50, confided that he cannot even think anymore without a PC.

Occasionally, Computer World mails a bundle of advertising cards for office computer users that urge them to buy products and services. Fifteen years or so ago, none of this business was around. Token Ring Adapter Cards, managing CICS Dumps, computer security needs, channel-attached protocol converter, cleaning-cartridges, high-speed utilities, CRT screen cleaners to diminish eyestrain, headaches and input errors and on and on.

To be sure, many of these advertising cards deal with the data storage, retrieval and transmission claims of office computer workstations as well as the typing functions. Which is why one card particularly stood out. It read:

“Computers were a great idea — so wily hasn’t productivity improved? Recent studies indicate less than 10% of a computer’s capabilities are used. Why? Too many obstacles to effective PC training: Manuals are time-consuming, internal experts aren’t always available; you have users in other geographic locations; and your training budget is too small.”

This company’s solution is, not surprisingly, to sell customers its latest video instruction, guides, practice disks, assessment tools, etc., etc., from LEARN PC.

While the basic economic necessities of people — shelter, food, health care, a job, mass transit, adequate education — are distant from so many Americans, the derivative economy of the proliferating world of computers and their satellites keeps humming along, but not to the tune of Quo Vadis?