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Tuesday, 17 September, 2002, 12:43 GMT 13:43 UK
Computers upset the workplace
Office with computers
Who's the boss in the office, man or machine?
Have computers given us more time to ourselves or stolen it with the opportunities and problems that they create, asks Dominic Arkwright of BBC Radio 4's Today programme.
At the dawn of the computer age, we were told the machines would revolutionise our lives.

They would steal our jobs, said the pessimists. They would give us unending leisure time, said the optimists.

Computers were going to revolutionise industry. They were going to become an instrument of totalitarian tyranny as envisaged in George Orwell's novel 1984. They were going to be able to reproduce.

Today, some of the predictions have proved to be heroically wrong.

"I think that IBM in the 1950s when it was looking at moving into this new market of the computer trying to estimate how many it would sell, thought that the total world market for computers would be five," said Computer Weekly News Editor Carl Schneider.

PCs vs jobs

But there was one aspect of computers and information technology revolution that was unswerving and inescapable.

IBM PC
The PC as it was, 20 years ago
"I think there was this kind of utopia where people thought that they would replace lots of labour with machines," said Robert Macredie of Brunel University

"It happened in the Industrial Revolution. It has this kind irreducibility - you can't see how it works, it's quite sexy, it's very nice - and we can get rid of lots of people and have lots of technology to deal with as many jobs as possible in the workplace."

It may have been the dirty, the dangerous, the repetitive jobs that were the first targets of automation.

The problem was, that if it was your job that was swept aside in the cull, it was your livelihood and probably your only skill that went too. Humans have always resisted the machines.

The point is, unnervingly, that computers and robots are better than humans in many and various ways.

"If you were the actual company owner, then the job can be done much more quickly, much more efficiently, with much more accuracy," said Professor Kevin Warwick from the Cybernetics Department at Reading University.

"So the overall product can be made to a much better quality."

New markets

If we take stock, 20 or 30 years later, we can see that something has happened. But computerisation has been a slippery thing.


Technology creates new markets so you have what economists would call a process of creative destruction

James Crabtree, The Work Foundation,
Manufacturing jobs have more than halved in the last 25 years.

But jobs in the technology sector have more than doubled in the last five years and it's inescapable that more people are in work now overall than ever have been before.

"This has been a common theme since the Luddites - that different types of technology would destroy jobs and not replace them," said James Crabtree, a researcher with The Work Foundation, an independent think tank.

"And almost every time anyone makes this prediction it gets it wrong. You can say many things about modern capitalism. One thing you can't do is say that it doesn't replace the jobs that it destroys.

"Technology creates new markets so you have what economists would call a process of creative destruction," he explained.

"Every time something is destroyed, something else is created and generally that's the pattern that Western economies have followed for the last two decades."

Who's the boss?

In the long run technology does not cost jobs, it moves them around. Humans simply have to adapt or die, to retrain in a way that the pre-computer generations never had to.

Computer microchip
Microchips: At the heart of the matter
Look around your own office and see the love and care lavished on these rectangle-faced machines with their aggressive manners and their secret desire to steal your job.

You may wonder who is really more important.

"There are still jobs for filing and carrying post around and so in a way such people are servicing the computers," said Professor Warwick, "carrying paper from one computer terminal to another and in a way working round the machines, working round the computers.

"So the computers are doing, in some senses, what could be the more interesting jobs.

"The computer becomes the important thing. The whole office collapses, it can no longer operate if the computer isn't working well," he said.

"Whereas if one or two people are off sick or ill or leave, no problem, we replace them. But the computer is the critical factor."

There is finally one determinant of success in business terms. Does technology increase productivity? Does it make the company more or less efficient?

Computer evolution

Some argue we should not be too swift to condemn technology.

"Over the last decade, hundreds and hundreds of billions of pounds have been spent on computers," said Mr Crabtree.

"And quite often you can't see an increase in productivity which leads people to think that this is the biggest economic swindle in history.

"But the point is any given technology is useless on its own. So with electricity, it took 50, 75, 100 years for people to develop the roads, to rebuild the factories near to the electricity plants," he argued.

"For computers that's true too. So people who assume that it ought to have happened yesterday, they just need to wait a little bit, it will happen."

"It took electricity 100 years before you saw noticeable increases that you could actually say were down to that," said Mr Crabtree.


Have you been thrown out of work by a computer? Have you thumped one in rage or perhaps you have adopted one and grown to love it. Send us your thoughts.

My job as a web developer didn't exist 10 years ago. I'm sure it will change beyond all recognition in the next 10 years.
Gordon, UK

Computers do make things easier. We use computers to capture and process vast amounts of data. This could not be achieved in a timely manner using human labour alone. They do consume a huge amount of your day, tweaking, running reports, monitoring etc. They are obviously here to stay, but they have changed little in 20 years apart from getting faster. They still do the most mundane tasks, mainly data crunching, they are useless at recognising individual parts without being taught, the use of artificial intelligence is not present. Most machines need to learn and when they lose this information they are useless, not like us humans, we can adapt and evolve and apply complex reasoning, something which a computer cannot do.
Ray, Scotland

If it weren't for computers I would probably be out of a job. I'm not clued up on the statistics, but I'm sure the computer industry, far from causing the jobless chaos envisaged by many has in fact created a huge number of skilled workers, just in a different industry.
David Winters, UK

It's amazing, working in an IT support role in a company, just how helpless people are. Computers have only really become commonplace in the last 10 years and yet businesses grind to a halt when they don't work. All it takes is one day with e-mail not working or no power and people just don't know how to communicate or do business any more. Meetings can not be held without swanky multimedia presentations and got forbid anyone actually hand writes anything or writes a letter unless it is an invoice. Technology has helped, but we have become reliant so quickly I'm not sure we could cope without it.
Nick Turner, UK

They don't get sick they don't get upset, they don't "have a bad day", they just run programs. People are foolish and don't know how to operate them. As interfaces evolve, the more stupid will be able to use them just as easily as any professional.
John Grafham, UK

I work in IT technical support, so I suppose I am a slave to the machines. A bit like a doctor, but my patients never thank me.
Dan, Warwick, UK

I work in computer games development, so computers haven't just given me a job, they've given me a career, and I should be grateful for their invention. On the other hand, the software I use every day costs my company more than I earn in a year!
Kaye, UK

40,000 years ago, a family of hunter-gatherers could support itself by working 20 hours a week. We can't do that any more. Is "civilisation" really such a good thing? We can't do without computers, and their use has improved our life in lots of ways, but they seem to have already become "master" as they are seen as indispensable for everything. People no longer think, except to work out how to coerce the beige box into doing whatever their boss wants it to do. This is not a job, or a life, it's intellectual slavery. We need to think about what technology is appropriate - in some cases, older, low-tech solutions are preferable.
Brian, UK

Computers only return data which they have been told to. Don't blame the computer, just the folks who architect the bad systems we all have to use.
Jamie McClure, UK

The computers that oppress us are not the ones we see, they are the ones that are read by people in call centres, that compose us threatening letters, bombard us with junk mail, refuse us overdrafts, and cannot be reasoned with when a mistake has been made.
Simon Richardson, UK

I am a student in Cardiff University studying Computer Science. I owned my first computer when I was four and have had a new one every few years since. I started playing games and was beating my family at them before I could even read. I then went on to teach myself to program and now have many around my parents homes and my own student home.

I interact with my computer every day for sending e-mails or talking with my friends. I use it to do my university work on. I use it in my current summer job. It is a tool which I would find it very hard to live without. However, it is just a tool. It does not own or rule me and I do not need it to survive. The computer is a big part of the human way of life and it helps us live a better one. It's a tool and that is all, though admittedly a very precious one.
Stephen Pickett, Wales, UK

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04 Sep 01 | Business
18 Aug 02 | Technology
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