The Human Factor
An engineer recently told me he's convinced there's going to be a backlash against the increasing computerization of society. He compared the current situation with that preceding the Luddite attack on the machinery of the Industrial Revolution, in the early 1800s. "It's all very nice to talk about what great progress we're making with computers," he concluded. "But what are we doing to improve people?"
Needless to say, we at Inc. Technology are not on the side of the Luddites. On the other hand, we agree that the excitement over the strides in productivity brought about by information technology sometimes overshadows more fundamental things that businesses -- and society -- have to get right.
Take, for example, our Case Study, "Spin Doctors" ([Article link]). Writer Hal Plotkin details how Rykodisc, an independent record label and distributor, racked up impressive growth and made larger competitors eat its dust largely by establishing tight lines of communication among its distributed outposts. The story might sound like yet another tribute to the power of computer networking and E-mail, but Rykodisc turns out to be an IT neophyte. In place of cutting-edge technology the company has found some surprisingly mundane -- and thoroughly personal -- ways to ensure the close sharing of vast amounts of critical information.
Then there's Charles C. Mann's piece on the dark side of the Internet, "Is the Internet Doomed?" ([Article link]). While most coverage of the on-line revolution (including ours) tends to emphasize the phenomenal business opportunities promised by the worldwide rush to climb onto the Net, Mann argues that there's a good chance the entire enterprise could prove a bust. The reason: unlike conventional ways of doing business, the Internet model fails to account for ordinary human weaknesses such as dishonesty, mistrust, and greed.
But please don't get us wrong. Technology can work wonders, and often does where it's least expected. As offbeat proof, we offer "Technology's Lifeline", Jeffrey L. Seglin's account of how a familiar office technology has made a difference for one of the least privileged segments of our society. It shows that in thoughtful hands, automation can make us all a little more human. -- David H. Freedman, Editor