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The Folly of a Fully Computerized World

Personal perspective: Are we on the brink of a computerized meltdown?

Key points

  • Computerized changes have accelerated so rapidly that they have almost become an end in themselves.
  • It is worth considering whether we have reached the point where further computerizations are making us less productive.
  • Workplace stress and anxiety may have proliferated from workers' needs to constantly learn new computer-driven technologies.
 Dennis M. Clausen
Have the stress and anxiety of computerized reeducation made us less productive?
Source: Dennis M. Clausen

I recently returned to my job as a university professor after a one-year sabbatical. During my absence, I was not aware of how virtually everything I do in my profession now requires knowledge of new, ever-changing software programs. I realized after a few weeks that everything I once did, even the most simple and mundane tasks, had been taken over by a new software program that must be learned.

In theory, these software programs are supposed to make our jobs easier. In practice, they often unleash a torrent of mind-numbing technological changes that must be learned, unlearned, and relearned time and time again. What’s more, those changes seem to be happening at an ever-accelerating pace. It is reminiscent of the “Dynamic Theory of History” Henry Adams (1838-1918) proposed in which changes that once took place in a year will soon take place in a week, and later in a single day, and then a few hours—until the changes are so rapid they solve no functional problems, but rather create a completely dysfunctional society.

Have we become a nation of computerized, electronic pedants who produce less and less that is worthwhile because we are so busy clicking little boxes and highlighting lines on computer programs that we stop doing the very things our jobs require us to do? Today, I am required to devote much of my time to learning and relearning software programs that help me order books for my classes, post office hours, submit grades, interact with many off-campus organizations and institutions—the list is virtually endless. Furthermore, if I (and others) need training in these new software programs as they grow and metastasize, there are parallel software workshop programs we must learn to help us master even more convoluted ways of learning the original programs—only to learn later that those programs have changed again, thus requiring more workshops. Needless to say, few of these things have much to do with teaching writing and literature.

The high cost of rapidly advancing technology

The software programs and computer technologies that have proliferated over the years to make our work easier have grown to the point that they often make it more difficult, if not impossible, to actually do the work we were hired to do. The end result of the new computer-driven college professoriate is a bureaucratic process of demands on our time that often become an end in themselves. Sometimes it feels like we are becoming the robotized creatures we read about in science-fiction novels.

Furthermore, these computerized complications of our professions do not begin and end in the workplace. They have crept into every facet of our personal lives. Medical records, banking systems, utility bills, ordering a take-out meal, email systems that change every year—they all direct us, often against our wills, to electronic transactions. So, if we use those apps, as we are forced to do, we must periodically go back and start all over again in a never-ending cascade of even more electronic reeducation.

I know I am not the first person to speak out against the robotizing of the human race through software technologies. David Graeber became an international sensation when he wrote an essay, and later a book, based on the following idea: “Technology has been marshaled, if anything, to figure out ways to make us all work more ... Huge swathes of people, in Europe and America in particular, spend their entire working lives performing tasks they secretly believe do not really need to be performed.”

Graeber expands on this in a variety of ways. He wrote extensively about people in pointless jobs who create still more work for others with ever-changing expectations and computerized work assignments. Often, he claims, this is accomplished through deliberately unending demands for these workers to consistently learn new computer technologies. Those higher in the employment chain of command then watch those beneath them engage in a frenzy of make-work. The whole point, according to Graeber, is to make those higher in the employment food chain look like they’re doing something useful, when often they are merely creating unnecessary work assignments for others. It also makes consumers an extension of their workforces as they are increasingly saddled with these bureaucratic demands.

If Graeber is correct, and many people believe he is judging by the response to his book and essays, the humanities seem especially vulnerable to the proliferation of these demands on workers’ time. It is hard to imagine that Michelangelo, Da Vinci, or a host of other Renaissance artists could have helped the human race take a leap into a higher form of artistic or esthetic contemplation if they were strapped every day to a computer work station. Nor would their time have been better used memorizing modern computerized technology to help them mix their paints so just the right colors were being used on their canvases. No, they used hands-on, up-close, old-fashioned methods of mixing and applying those paints until the humanity of their subjects shone through clearly and brilliantly.

I am not by any means opposed to all computer technology. Some of those changing technologies have made my jobs as an author and college professor easier. However, I believe we may have passed the point where endless computer programs take control of every aspect of our lives and then need to be changed and modified in accelerating patterns until they are ultimately counterproductive.

Perhaps it is a stretch, but it feels like we are doing to ourselves in every aspect of human life what the automobile manufacturers did when they created cars that were wholly dependent on computer chips that are no longer available. Those cars now sit in dealer parking lots or owners’ garages, while older used cars that are not dependent on computers are selling in record numbers. Why? Those older models are simpler to operate, they don’t break down as often, and they don’t need a highly trained technician to repair them. Then, recently, the entire worldwide supply chain has been stymied by a shortage of computer chips, thus handicapping real economic growth.

Where is all of this taking us?

The stress and anxiety of this never-ending, unwinnable race against computerized proliferation may not only be a workplace mental health issue. It may be an impediment to real economic progress.

References

Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams, "A Dynamic Theory of History" (1904). Anthology of American Literature, Vol II., Pearson/ Prentice Hall, 2004.

David Graeber, Bull Shit Jobs, A Theory (2018). New York: Simon and Schuster.

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