Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 05/90 item 01 - scanned
What have computers ever done for you? Have they made you happier? I mean really happier? Have they made you wealthier? Unless you are a proprietor of a computer business, I don't suppose they've made you really wealthy. Have they given you more time to enjoy life? Even after almost a quarter of a century working with the darned things, my feelings are still very mixed. Sometimes I feel the urge to give my computers a good kicking. But then I remember the good times. Computers have given me a lot of pleasure over the years. The very best times are always those when you're ahead of the game. The times before your lords and masters cotton on to what you're doing.
As a programmer, in the mid- to late-60s, I had a lovely life. No-one could exert meaningful pressure, because they knew they'd be sunk without me. Finding programmers who could write NCR 500 machine code was not an easy task. Finding programmers, full stop, was not that much easier. We programmers were more or less autonomous then. If we wanted to spend a week shaving 10 milliseconds off a PAYE calculation routine, we just went ahead and did it. There was no data processing bureaucracy counting our daily lines of code, or checking the work against the specification. We were the systems analysts, the designers, the programmers and, sometimes, the operators too. It was fun and, despite our power, we tended to work very hard, albeit without a business person's sense of urgency or direction.
Then the bosses got wise - they started managing computer projects properly. The tasks were broken down and individual efforts monitored much more closely. Data processing became a very important arm of business. Then, just as things were getting really boring, along came the personal computer. This was a wonderful opportunity for all the frustrated propeller-heads to leave their data processing departments and set up software and hardware companies. We smelled a revolution in the air, a chance for the ordinary person to take power. We saw computers being used by individuals, regardless of the dictates of the data processing bureaucracy. Life was suddenly fun again. For years our magazines, our computers and our programs infiltrated organisations large and small. The power was where it belonged.
But, after a few years of this anarchy, companies like IBM decided that all these personal computers would, one day, rejoin the corporate computer system as intelligent terminals. They started pumping out PCs with a vengeance, trying to grab a share of the most valuable real estate in the world - desktops. Now, we're seeing connectivity being bandied about as the key to computer success. Individuality is out, corporate-think is back in. And what happened to our dreams of liberation? What happened was that the bosses found out what could be done with personal computers. They realised that they could improve one or more of the three underpinning factors of business success - cost, quality and timescale. They could deliver more quickly, produce more cheaply, or improve quality - all without penalty.
For those in the know, this was wonderful, until the others found out. Then the playing field was level again. More powerful personal computers were demanded, and more powerful applications to go with them. Now we're into groupware, enterprise-wise computing and all the other stuff we once tried to run away from. 'The individual users have benefited very little from this. Their productivity has multiplied but, sure as eggs is eggs, their income hasn't multiplied proportionally. People don't do the job they used to do and then go home. They are now expected to do more because the computer gives them the power to do more in the same amount of time. We are victims of a huge con-trick. We have had a better quality of life dangled before us - let the computer take the strain - but, no sooner have we fallen for that one, the pressure is back on us again. We had better realise that this will always be the case and we ought to decide what we're going to do about it. We are all involved in a rapidly accelerating pace of life due, in no small measure, to the computer. (The wheel, the clock and the internal combustion engine should also take their share of the blame.) Eventually the pace will become too much for us.
It's time for another revolution. The first one, into personal computers, was highly visible. The bosses couldn't fail to see the machines on our desks. This time we can be more subtle, we can buy ourselves breathing space without them being any the wiser. We just need to find personal productivity software which improves our performance even further. Only this time, instead of telling the world about our discoveries, we'll keep them strictly to ourselves.