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Hard Drives : Computer Nerds, Stop Worrying: Your Obsession Can Make You a Better Human Being

September 12, 1993|James S. Fallows | James Fallows lives in Washington, D.C., where he writes about computers, among other things, for the Atlantic Monthly. and

For a long time, computers were good for a laugh. Through the first decade of the personal-computer age, from roughly 1981 through 1991, the idea that these frustrating machines would make America more productively efficient had become a standing joke. The more computer magazines huffed and puffed about "new productivity tools"--the latest souped-up spreadsheet, the newest laptop computer four ounces lighter than its suddenly "hefty" predecessor--the harder economists had to struggle to detect any benefit to American business from the computer revolution.

Just to give one example from a mountain of academic findings, Gary Loveman, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, surveyed American companies that had invested heavily in computers between 1978 and 1984, when the revolution was just getting under way. He found that the money spent on computers might just as well have been thrown away; it had less impact on productivity than money spent on almost anything else.

Now the same experts who brought us the productivity paradox are back to say: Oh, never mind. They have come up with new ways of measuring business productivity, and guess what? The companies that spent the most on computers were right all along!

There are many explanations for this turnaround. In some industries, the experts didn't notice early gains in productivity because the gains weren't there. In these cases, computers did not become truly valuable until other technological bottlenecks were removed. Until telephone companies finished installing high-volume lines in the late 1980s, for instance, banks couldn't move data from place to place fast enough to support a nationwide network of automatic-teller machines.

Some analysts now claim that the problem was (surprise!) all the government's fault, because the way it measured productivity was too crude and old-fashioned to detect the surge in computerized productivity that was under way. Ronald Schmidt, of the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco, has pointed out that the "productivity" challenge in the modern automobile business has very little to do with the sheer output rate of vehicles--a simple figure the government knows how to measure. These days, productivity involves things like product reliability, customer satisfaction and quick response to shifting market demands. Computers have helped companies improve performance in all these areas, but none of that shows up in output-per-man-hour terms, which is how productivity is normally defined.

The pendulum has swung so far that a new school of thought--much like some very old schools of thought--now worries that computers are making us too productive and account for the "jobless recovery" under way now, in which companies can increase output and profits without hiring new people.

Nowadays I take it for granted that, when I finish this article, I can send it in less than a minute, by modem, to the magazine. Barely a dozen years ago, I would have been scrambling to the Small Parcels desk of the nearest airport, checking schedules to see how I could get the manuscript on the next plane west. Or I might have lived the nightmare of dictating the entire piece over the telephone, a routine ordeal in those days. I take it similarly for granted that, when I've run out of ideas for revising this article, I can print a clean final copy without having to type a whole new draft.

With my computer, filing income taxes has become a matter of running a program at the end of the year and finding out how much I owe. (This is assuming, of course, that I've logged in payments and checks through the previous year, as they occur.) My desk may be littered with manuscripts, magazines and moldy coffee cups, but it is blessedly free of little yellow stick-on notes and scribbled phone numbers. All such info sits tidily--and retrievably--inside the machine. I take it for granted that when I want to see what the manager of a Matsushita plant told me in Osaka five years ago, I can find it within seconds on my machine. My office is even free of those cursed sheaves of greasy, curly fax paper. Incoming faxes go right into the computer. I can print them out (on normal paper) if I choose, but most of them I simply read on the screen, then save or (usually) erase.

Enough already. Anyone who is observant should have realized by now that computers are indispensably "productive." But anyone who is honest must also admit that the weird allure of computers isn't much related to productivity at all.

THE FASCINATION WITH THE COMPUTER, THE IMPULSE THAT KEEPS people buying computer magazines and sitting at the monitor late into the night, has very little to do with productivity, just as the romance of the automobile has little to do with today's reliable engines, long-lasting tires or rust-resistant fenders. People use computers because of the ways in which computers are productive, but they love computers for the ways in which they are not. Let me explain.

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