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Electronic Bulldozers

One of the biggest roadblocks to building an effective information marketplace is the inability of interconnected computer systems to easily relieve us of human work. This is because today’s networked computer systems have no way of understanding one another, even at a rudimentary level, so they can carry out routine transactions among themselves. Yet the potential for automating information work is huge-one-half of the world’s industrial economy comprises office work, suggesting how huge this new socioeconomic movement could be. To off-load human brainwork, we must develop tools that let computers work with one another toward useful hu-man purposes. I call the tools that will make this possible “automatization” tools to distinguish them from the automation tools of the Industrial Revolution that offloaded human musclework.

Today we are so excited by e-mail and the Web that we plunge in with all our energy to explore the new frontier. If we stop and reflect for a moment, however, we will realize that human productivity will not be enhanced if we continue to use our eyes and brains to navigate through this maze and understand the messages sent from one computer to another. Imagine if the companies making the first steam and internal combustion engines of the Industrial Revolution made them so that they could work together only if people stood beside them and continued to labor with their shovels and horse-drawn plows. What an absurd constraint. Yet that is what we do today-expend a huge amount of human brainwork to make our computers work together. It’s time to shed our high-tech shovels and build the electronic bulldozers of the Information Age. That’s what the automatization tools are all about.

Achieving some basic degree of understanding among different computers to make automatization possible is not as technically difficult as it sounds. But it does require one very difficult commodity: human consensus. One simple way to achieve automatization is to use electronic forms (e-forms), where each entry has a pre-agreed meaning that all participating computers can exploit through their programs. Suppose that I take 3 seconds to speak into my machine the command, “Take me to Athens next weekend.” My machine would generate the right e-form for this task and ping-pong back and forth with the reservation computer’s e-form before finding an acceptable date and class and booking the flight. Since it would have taken me 10 minutes to make an online reservation myself, I could rightfully brag that my productivity gain was 200 to 1 (600 seconds down to 3 seconds), or 20,000 percent!

Thus we can imagine that in the information marketplace, common interest groups will establish e-forms to specify routine and frequently recurring transactions in their specialty, whether those entail buying oranges wholesale or routing around x-rays among different medical departments. If the members of such a group can agree on an e-form, especially one that represents a laborious transaction, then they will achieve substantial automatization gains. Computer programs or people interested in doing that kind of business would be able to look up the agreed upon e-form and use it in their computer, toward the same gains but with much less effort.

Quite a few computer wizards, and people who are averse to standards, believe that common conventions like e-forms resemble Esperanto, the ill-fated attempt to create a universal spoken language among all people. They argue that attempts at shared computer languages will suffer the same ills. Instead, they advocate that the only way our computers will get to understand each other will be by translating locally understandable commands and questions among their different worlds, just as people translate between English and French.

This argument is faulty because shared concepts are required even in translating among different languages. Whether you call an object chair or chaise, it is still the thing with four legs on which people sit. It is that shared concept base, etched somehow in your brain, that makes possible a common understanding of the two different words in English and French. Without it, no amount of inter-conversion can lead to comprehension, simply because, as in the case of computers, there is nothing in common on either side to be comprehended.

If we can form a consensus within and across specialties concerning the most basic concepts computers should share, then even if we end up with different languages and dialects, software developers will be able to write programs and ordinary users will be able to write scripts that install useful computer-to-computer automatization activities-searching for information on our behalf, watching out for events of interest to us, carrying out transactions for us, and much more.

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