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Automation on the Job

Computers were supposed to be labor-saving devices. How come we're still working so hard?

Brian Hayes

The Do-It-Yourself Economy

In the 1950s, digital computers were exotic, expensive, unapproachable and mysterious. It was far easier to see such a machine becoming the nexus of control in a vast industrial enterprise than to imagine the computer transformed into a household object, comparable to a telephone or a typewriter—or even a toy for the children to play with. Donald Michael wrote:

Most of our citizens will be unable to understand the cybernated world in which they live.... There will be a small, almost separate, society of people in rapport with the advanced computers.... Those with the talent for the work probably will have to develop it from childhood and will be trained as intensively as the classical ballerina.

If this attitude of awestruck reverence had persisted, most of the computer’s productive potential would have been wasted. Computers became powerful when they became ubiquitous—not inscrutable oracles guarded by a priestly elite but familiar appliances found on every desk. These days, we are all expected to have rapport with computers.

The spread of automation outside of the factory has altered its social and economic impact in some curious ways. In many cases, the net effect of automation is not that machines are doing work that people used to do. Instead we’ve dispensed with the people who used to be paid to run the machines, and we’ve learned to run them ourselves. When you withdraw money from the bank via an ATM, buy an airline ticket online, ride an elevator or fill up the gas tank at a self-service pump, you are interacting directly with a machine to carry out a task that once required the intercession of an employee.

The dial telephone is the archetypal example. My grandmother’s telephone had no dial; she placed calls by asking a switchboard operator to make the connection. The dial (and the various other mechanisms that have since replaced it) empowers you to set up the communications channel without human assistance. Thus it’s not quite accurate to say that the operator has been replaced by a machine. A version of the circuit-switching machine was there all along; the dial merely provided a convenient interface to it.

The process of making travel arrangements has been transformed in a similar way. It was once the custom to telephone a travel agent, who would search an airline database for a suitable flight with seats available. Through the Web, most of us now access that database directly; we even print our own boarding passes. Again, what has happened here is not exactly the substitution of machines for people; it is a matter of putting the customer in control of the machines.

Other Internet technologies are taking this process one more dizzy step forward. Because many Web sites have published interface specifications, I now have the option of writing a program to access them. Having already removed the travel agent, I can now automate myself out of the loop as well.

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