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It is a few days before Christmas. I am out shopping at a well-known upscale department store in the Greater Boston area. I take nine items to the cash register. The cashier passes her magic wand over each package to read the bar code, and the impact printer rattles away as it prints a description and price for each item. I am getting ready to pull out my credit card when the woman turns to the cash register beside her and, horror of horrors, starts keying in the exact same information manually, reading the numbers off each package in turn.

She is on package number six when I clear my throat conspicuously and, with the indignation of a time-study specialist, ask her why in the world she is duplicating the work of the bar-code reader. She waves me to silence with the authority of one accustomed to doing so. “Please, I have to finish this,” she says politely. I tell her to take her time, even though my muscles are tightening up and my brain is engaging in vivid daydreams of punitive acts.

She finishes the last package, ignores my pointed sigh, reaches for a pencil, and … starts all over again! This time she is writing in longhand on the store’s copy of the receipt a string of numbers for every package. I am so shocked by this triple travesty that I forget my anger and ask her in true wonder what she is doing. Once more she waves me to silence so she can concentrate, but then obliges: “I have to enter every part number by hand,” she says. “Why?” I ask, with a discernible trembling in my voice. “Because my manager told me to,” she replies, barely suppressing the urge to finish her sentence with the universal suffix “stupid.” I could not let this go. I called for the manager. He looked at me knowingly and said with a sigh, “Computers, you know.”

I told him that this looked a bit more serious than that, and he proceeded to explain in slow, deliberate phrasing that the central machine didn’t work, so a duplicate had to be entered by hand.

“Then, why enter it at all into the computer?” I ventured hopefully.

“Because it is our standard operating procedure, and when the central machine comes back, we should be in a position to adjust our records for inventory changes.” Hmm.

“Then why in the world is she both keying in the numbers and entering them with the bar-code reader?” I countered.

“Oh. That’s the general manager’s instruction. He is concerned about our computer problems and wants to be able to verify and cross-check all the departmental entries.”

I quietly walked out, stunned.

After I got over my shock at the absurd waste of time this store’s procedures caused for the cashier-and me-I began to marvel at how the great promise that computers would improve human productivity is more easily discussed than implemented. Indeed, the topic of whether computers are raising human productivity has generated a great deal of controversy. Technology detractors will point to such encounters and say, “See, computers don’t help us.” And it’s true that information technology does hurt productivity in some cases; it takes longer to wade through those endless automated phone-answering menus than it does to talk to a human operator. If technology is not used wisely, it can make us less productive instead of more so.

But computers can also be incredibly helpful. Used properly, they help ring up prices faster, track inventory, and handle price changes. Productivity will rise in the Information Age for the same reason it did in the Industrial Age: the application of new tools to relieve human work.

Some people dismiss productivity concerns, arguing that computers make possible things we couldn’t do otherwise. Certainly that is true, as the World Wide Web, special effects in movies, and credit cards have shown us. But to ignore the computer’s fundamental ability to help humans do their brain work is at best perverse and at worst irresponsible. Productivity is the yardstick by which socioeconomic revolutions are measured. That was the case with plows, engines, electricity, and the automobile. If there is to be a true information revolution, computers will have to repeat the pattern with information and information work.

As we try to anticipate how computers might be used in the twenty-first century we are bombarded with unparalleled confusion and hype-a faster Web/Internet, network computers, intranets, cyberspace, 1,000 video channels, free information, telework, and much more. To my thinking, this future world can be described simply and crisply as an “information marketplace,” where people and their interconnected computers are engaged in the buying, selling, and free exchange of information and information work.

Many issues surround the information marketplace: the technology of its underlying information infrastructures; its uses in commerce, health, learning, the pursuit of pleasure, and government; and the consequences of these new activities for our personal lives, our society, and our history. Here we will focus on a small but crucial aspect of this rich ensemble-ensuring that tomorrow’s information marketplace will help us in our eternal quest to get more results for less work.


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