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  •                                 NETFUTURE
                Technology and Human Responsibility for the Future
    Issue #19      Copyright 1996 O'Reilly & Associates           May 16, 1996
                Editor:  Stephen L. Talbott (stevet@netfuture.org)
                         On the Web: http://netfuture.org
         You may redistribute this newsletter for noncommercial purposes.
    *** Editor's note
    *** High-tech and productivity
          Are we seeing renewed productivity or a last gasp?
    *** Masculine transcendentalism
          When the physical world melts away
    *** Computers at school:  the web and the plow (Lowell Monke)
          Reckoning with the costs of technology
    *** About this newsletter

    *** Editor's note In my late-night haste to get out the previous issue (#18), I neglected to put my initials to the piece, "Tyranny of the 21st century," and I also neglected to give the email address of Sue Barnes, who had invited submissions to the Journal of Interpersonal Computing and Technology (IPCT): sbbarnes@pipeline.com.


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    *** High-tech and productivity

    In a letter to the New York Review of Books (May 23) Thomas Landauer, author of The Trouble with Computers: Usefulness, Usability, and Productivity, asks whether it is true, as some think, that "the long inability of information technology to raise productivity is a thing of the past." In particular, he wonders whether the "epidemic of corporate downsizing and rising stock prices" is evidence of a new trend. Here is his answer, in part:

    Unfortunately, these developments are better explained by a very different interpretation: The failure of huge investments in information technology (about five trillion invested, about zero net return) has driven US businesses into a desperate gamble to avert ruin. They are trying to keep profits up by delivering poorer service (voice-menu receptionists, delayed installations) and lower quality (airline food and seat-room) using fewer underpaid and overworked people. More than one Fortune 500 company has been driven to extreme downsizing by huge expenditures--hundreds of millions--on computer-based "reengineering" efforts that were either abandoned or ineffective. I have heard of no case of demonstrated corporate-wide efficiency gains that come close to justifying the magnitude of the downsizings at IBM, AT&T, NYNEX, Huges, Kodak, BellSouth... Meanwhile, highly productive firms like 3M eschew information technology excesses and layoffs.
    Landauer, who works out of the University of Colorado's Institute of Cognitive Science, sees "frightened top management of efficiency-stagnant industries making devil's bargains with wall Street, mortgaging the future real effectiveness of their businesses and the morale of all America for short-term gains in profit and stock prices."

    A similar note is struck by economics Nobel Prize laureate Robert M. Solow: "The hype about productivity has