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There was a time when people moved earth with shovels using their muscles. Then came bulldozers, and the workers threw away their shovels because they could move more earth, faster and more accurately, with small movements of their fingers.

Are we doing as well in the Information Revolution?

There was a time when people labored with their minds and eyes, their information-world muscles, on a multitude of office tasks. Then came the computers and…cut to your favorite e-mail or Web-browsing session: You squint your eyes and stretch your brain, pondering what that long header or that distant Web site really says. You then click your mouse, bringing up another page and back you go to squinting and stretching, repeating the process sometimes for hours. You are in effect “shoveling” with your eyes and brain, but you are not aware of it because you are holding diamond-studded high-tech shovels designed to make you feel modern!

It’s time we all realize this, throw away our shovels and bring in the electronic bulldozers. In my lab, I use my favorite e-bulldozer by picking up the microphone and saying, “Computer, take us to Athens this weekend.” The machine knows that “us” is two people, that we like to travel business class and that the weekend comprises three days; so it contacts the airline reservation computer and negotiates with it by typing the same query codes used by human travel agents. It usually takes me three seconds to command my machine in this way and 10 minutes for my machine (or me negotiating with the reservation computer) to complete the job. That’s a 20,000 percent human productivity gain. Not a bad e-bulldozer!

Computers have already helped increase human productivity in repetitive payroll, credit card and banking tasks and in design. But across the board of office work, results have been questionable: In the so-called “productivity paradox,” economists noted that in the decade of the 1980s, while manufacturing productivity rose by 17 percent, office-work productivity actually declined by nearly 7 percent.

In the noise and acrimony that followed this revelation, much was said about our inability to measure office productivity. Never mind. We don’t need precise statistics to conclude that with computers crawling out of every closet, we don’t seem to be working fewer hours at the office or achieving much more than we did before. Nor should we be placated by the often-touted notion that computers will do other things for us besides bulldozing. Computers are perfectly capable of raising human productivity, and we’ll be better off learning how to do it rather than looking for excuses.

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