(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Thomas Landauer has written a book that very well could meet with two very different reactions. Those already critical of new forms of information technology (“IT,” in Landauer’s terms) may hail the book as proving that computers have been a huge waste of money and time. Others, mostly avid users of the new technology, may believe that they could never live without computers and that no amount of evidence to the contrary will convince them that they would be better off without them.

Yet either of these reactions would betray an incomplete reading of the book. Landauer is not inveighing against computers or their use in principle. He is, however, highly critical of how they have been used so far. As Landauer states in his preface, computers have not contributed nearly as much to personal and especially business productivity as expected. Nevertheless, they still could live up to their promise. His prescription for the IT industry is UCD: user-centered design, development, and deployment.

In the first part of the book, Landauer spends considerable time trying to show just how far short of expected productivity gains in business the use of computers has fallen. Even though many of the statistics he uses are “soft,” because of the many variables of business cycles and the difficulty of assessing their relative impact, he approaches the issue of productivity from so many different angles and with so many different examples that eventually the sheer weight of his arguments forces one to admit that he is probably right. Landauer admits a major difficulty in economic analysis is that while correlation is relatively easy to establish, causation is notoriously difficult. Yet as he points out, the investment in IT has the “right economic size and shape” to explain the relatively meager gains in productivity in virtually all sectors of the economy where computers and related technologies have played a major role.

A determined IT user will probably find it counterintuitive to think of his or her work with computers as anything but greatly enhancing of productivity. After all, these machines help people do things that they surely could never have done nearly as efficiently before, whether typing a letter, balancing a checkbook, or searching for books in a library. Still, consideration of all the time invested in learning how to work the machines and making the machines actually do the desired work may lead some individuals to admit that perhaps computers have not been as efficient as users have allowed themselves to believe.

Landauer focuses on comparisons to the productivity gains made in earlier applica-tions of automation to industry, including earlier deployment (phase one) of computer-related technologies. Here he makes one of the key observations in his book: While in various manufacturing processes there are obvious gains to be had in speeding up repetitive processes that were largely done by hand until the advent of automation, in information-based industries the kind of work involved makes the application of computer technology (phase two) more problematic. Information work is qualitatively different, requiring kinds of thinking that the computer is not yet even close to doing. Spell-checking is fine, as is being able to fix mistakes without correction fluid and giving texts a “desktop publishing” look, but these are not what really slow people down in their writing. Putting thoughts together into a coherent stream that individuals can then present to others as a finished product is the task that requires the most time, and computers and their software have not helped out very much as yet with such needs.

In part this situation is the result of the sheer complexity of the tasks humans routinely ask their brains to perform. Computers are extremely accurate and fast at simple math, and if users can break complex math into simple components, computers can be just as accurate and almost as fast at very complex math as well. Yet much of what humans use their brains for has not been broken down and mimicked by computer hardware and software, and it will likely still be some time before truly creative uses of computers come to fruition. Landauer points out a very important problem here, one that he unfortunately glosses over when presenting his own solutions.

Usefulness is diminished even further when people try to use computers for such tasks of which they are not optimally capable. Workers can actually lose time. For example, how many times do users of computers retype their documents as compared with typists in earlier days? Even if one does not lose time, in order to calculate productivity one has to factor in the cost of the equipment and software and the time spent making them work. There is also the cost differential involved in who is actually typing the letter now (the boss versus a secretary) and how much more per hour that person’s time is reckoned to be worth. Yet Landauer is surprisingly optimistic...

(The entire section is 2024 words.)