Trapped in the Net Essay - Critical Essays

Gene I. Rochlin

Trapped in the Net

In TRAPPED IN THE NET: THE UNANTICIPATED CONSEQUENCES OF COMPUTERIZATION, Gene I. Rochlin, Professor of Energy and Resources at the University of California, Berkeley, extends the computer trap beyond its usual implications for individual users to include the impact of computers on organizations and the way they function. Through a sweeping history of computers, military technology, and management theory, Rochlin shows how the Internet and other new technologies have encouraged computerized task management, standardization, and conformity, and jeopardized the autonomy of individual users.

Examining the electronic revolution in the context of the early twentieth century business management theory of Frederick W. Taylor, with its principles of production engineering, strict control, and rational modeling, Rochlin worries that skilled labor is being replaced by preprogrammed equipment and technicians. The consequences of such computerization are evident not only in recent financial crises, such as the stock market crash of October, 1987, but also in a variety of safety-critical occupations. Aircraft disasters like the United Airlines Flight 811 from Hawaii to New Zealand in 1989 and British Midland Flight 737 in 1989 emphasize that experienced and well-informed humans are more important than superior electronic and automated equipment in the operation of aircraft, especially in times of crisis.

In TRAPPED IN THE NET Rochlin also analyzes combat situations in which advanced electronic communication systems contributed to human error, such as the downing of Iran Air Flight 655 by the missile cruiser USS VINCENNES in 1988. He questions the blind use of highly automated equipment in such combat and in other human-oriented, action-centered, and unpredictable situations. Borrowing a navy term, Rochlin speaks of the need for those working in safety-critical situations like air traffic control to “have the bubble,” to maintain full personal and cognitive sense of their work environment. His fear is that public safety may be placed at risk if the computer net bursts this bubble.

Sources for Further Study

Booklist. XCIII, May 15, 1997, p. 1547.

Choice. XXXV, December, 1997, p. 669.

New Scientist. CLIV, July 5, 1997, p. 46.

The New York Times Book Review. CII, September 7, 1997, p. 23.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLIV, March 24, 1997, p. 65.

The Virginia Quarterly Review. LXXIII, Autumn, 1997, p. 134.