Trapped in the Net

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

The trap in Trapped in the Net refers to the blind drive of modern society to computerize every aspect of human activity in the interest of efficiency and productivity. Gene Rochlin, a professor of energy and resources at the University of California, Berkeley, casts this “computer trap” in a wider net by examining the impact of networked computer technology on the organizations in which individual computer users function.

In a sweeping history of computerization, Rochlin underscores the apparent organizational ambivalence of the machine itself. While early mainframe computers operated under a centralized and vertically organized administration, the more horizontal orientation of later small digital computers offered individual users greater freedom and control. Such democratization, Rochlin notes, was temporary. New technologies such as the Internet increase the computer’s involvement in task management, emphasize standardization and conformity, and significantly reduce the autonomy of individual users.

Rochlin credits the computer with revolutionary social and organizational changes comparable to those caused by the printing press and the telephone. These changes are analyzed in terms of the scientific management theory proposed early in the twentieth century by Frederick W. Taylor, who applied the principles of production engineering to business management. Rochlin sees computerization as part of the same Taylorist pattern of organizational control, rational modeling, and analysis pursued by American industry since Henry Ford invented the production line. Skilled labor and craftspeople yield to standardized labor, and the technical staff that keeps the automated machinery in operation becomes more important than the workers who use the equipment.

The manifold benefits of computerization disguise the ways computers alter not only individual human activities but also the very structure of human organizations. Rochlin is particularly worried that preprogrammed machines do not readily allow human operators to acquire the expertise necessary to deal with unexpected events and problems. While computers can perform highly complex computations upon large amounts of data, they are only tools that require monitoring and control by knowledgeable humans. Yet many aspects of the computer, such as its high response speed, make human intervention difficult when things go wrong and inhibit the ability of human controllers to develop and maintain full cognitive awareness of the enterprise.

The core of Trapped in the Net is a series of case studies examining the consequences and long-term problems of computerization in specific occupational contexts. Three particular incidents illustrate the ramifications of electronic trading of stocks and commodities. In the stock market crash of October, 1987, the sheer volume of sell orders by computerized trading programs turned what should have just been a bad day into an automated and electronic panic. On July 19, 1995, the volume of transactions led to a complete halt in trading activity at the National Association of Securities Dealers Automated Quotations market (NASDAQ). The collapse of the British banking firm Barings P.L.C. in 1995 resulted from the unscrupulous computerized dealing of one employee. For Rochlin these incidents illustrate a breakdown in traditional, hierarchal control over financial activities and a dangerous diffusion of powers horizontally across an electronic network. Because trading activities in the virtual marketplace take place not in banks or on market floors but over an interactive network, the influence of both brokerage firms and their regulatory agencies is weakening. Rochlin worries that such an electronically transformed market is unstable and vulnerable to fluctuations due to single transactions, fraud, and theft. He fears the possible domino effect of automated electronic trading and anticipates the need for new financial regulatory structures to monitor the activities of all electronic users.

The crux of the organizational problem created by computerized automated processes is a significant decline in human expertise and in the role of human actors and decision makers. For example, accountability is dispersed in an organization such as Eurotransplant, an electronic facilitator of organ transplants that relies upon other institutions such as hospitals and shipping services to complete its tasks via a centralized computer and an international database. When such an intricate network errs, who is responsible? So, too, naval duty officers value the training and experience needed to interpret, evaluate, and control data generated from a variety of electronic sources. They speak of “having the bubble,” of retaining a coherent sense of all the interconnected elements in a ship’s system, including combat status,...

(The entire section is 1983 words.)