I started working with microcomputers in 1976, long before most people even knew they existed. So, in the last 35 years, I have been able to observe how they changed society, how we work and live with these new tools.
To be blunt, the computer age hit its peak period of productivity about 1985. Since then, I think they have been more of a hindrance than a help.
Twenty-five years ago, if you showed a legal secretary how to use a good word processing computer, the improvement in productivity was dramatic. You could store forms, totally eliminate typing errors, and eliminate redundant tasks. And make perfect copies without using carbon paper. (Can you still buy carbon paper? I wonder if my sons even know what it is?)
Shortly after that, the computer world invented something that totally destroyed productivity; the internet. I am willing to bet that legal secretary in 1986 was a lot more productive than her counterpart in 2011. Today, most office employees seem to spend at least half of every day on their email.
How and when did email become work? Why do we believe that responding to email is productive? Sure, simple communication is faster and simpler, but the volume of communication has increased exponentially.
During the American Civil War, generals in the field frequently chaffed under the constant barrage of telegrams they received from their headquarters. This was the first war with modern communications. “How much gunpowder did you use yesterday? How many of your men need shoes? Did you file a requisition in triplicate?”
Without a doubt, this improved communication caused an increase in the size of general staffs, not always with a corresponding increase in efficiency. Probably the same phenomena occurred with the arrival of the telephone. While overall workplace efficiency increased, individual efficiency suffered as more employees spent more time on the phone talking. Unless you are a history professor, talking is not work.
Have you ever gone to a store and been forced to wait while a clerk answered a phone and talked to a customer? You actually drove to the store, but for some reason you have to wait while the clerk helps some slob still at home in his pajamas. The next time this happens, pull out you cell phone, call the store, and scream at the clerk, “DO YOU REMEMBER ME!”
Which brings us back to emails. If I were the Head Moose or Squirrel at Enema U, I would turn off the email servers from 8:30 in the morning until 4:45 in the afternoon. Productivity would soar. Yes, I would miss out on emails reminding me of Daylight Savings Time, The United Way, and special faculty season pass offers to the football games we will lose (these special offers invariably are more expensive than what they offer the general public…), but I might actually have time to spend with students.
The university needs to make a start somewhere, as the Internet is a black hole slowly sucking up all productivity. It is getting really hard to keep up with the demands that the internet places on our daily life. Not that long ago, a high school reunion was something you did once every ten to twenty years just so you could see who got fat while you reminisced about a past that never was. Now, we all seem to be locked in a reunion that we call Facebook.
Facebook was great when I had a dozen friends and communicated once a week. Now, I have 250 friends and can’t remember who a third of them are. Do I really need to know what everyone is having for lunch? Do you have a friend that tells you endlessly about the health of their dog? Do you have a friend who regularly tells you they are rereading Proust in the original French, but this time, just to make it intellectually challenging, they are going to read the book upside down?
I have a couple of student employees (the Munchkins). When not busy, they seem to spend a lot of time with Farmville. Why would people, who wouldn’t spend 5 minutes in a real garden if they were growing an honest-to-God Money Tree, volunteer to pretend to be a farmer? Enema U is an ag school, if farming seems like fun, switch your major! It’s not like your current major is ever going to lead to a real job--there aren’t any openings for Behavioral Social Justice Workers for the Chronic Musical Bedwetter.
America currently spends $100 million real dollars a year in Farmville. This real money buys imaginary seeds and make-believe tractors. We spend more on fake food than some incredibly-dirt-poor-hell-hole-country actually spends on real food. I least I think so, because I’m not going to look it up.
Computers are slowly destroying all real work place productivity. Our only hope is that the internet will eventually become completely full of cute pictures of cats. God knows by wife is doing her part.