The Digital Hand: How Computers Changed the Work of American Public Sector Industries

The Digital Hand: How Computers Changed the Work of American Public Sector Industries

The Digital Hand: How Computers Changed the Work of American Public Sector Industries

The Digital Hand: How Computers Changed the Work of American Public Sector Industries

Synopsis

In The third volume of The Digital Hand, James W. Cortada completes his sweeping survey of the effect of computers on American industry, turning finally to the public sector, and examining how computers have fundamentally changed the nature of work in government and education. This book goes far beyond generalizations about the Information Age to the specifics of how industries have functioned, now function, and will function in the years to come. Cortada combines detailed analysis with narrative history to provide a broad overview of computings and telecommunications role in the entire public sector, including federal, state, and local governments, and in K-12 and higher education. Beginning in 1950, when commercial applications of digital technology began to appear, Cortada examines the unique ways different public sector industries adopted new technologies, showcasing the manner in which their innovative applications influenced other industries, as well as the U.S. economy as a whole.

He builds on the surveys presented in the first volume of the series, which examined sixteen manufacturing, process, transportation, wholesale and retail industries, and the second volume, which examined over a dozen financial, telecommunications, media, and entertainment industries. With this third volume, The Digital Hand trilogy is complete, and forms the most comprehensive and rigorously researched history of computing in business since 1950, providing a detailed picture of what the infrastructure of the Information Age really looks like and how we got there. Managers, historians, economists, and those working in the public sector will appreciate Cortada's analysis of digital technology's many roles and future possibilities.

Excerpt

The object of government is the welfare of the people.

—Theodore Roosevelt, 1910

The literature on how organizations in the private sector go about their dayto-day work is almost always silent about what workers who are employed by government agencies do. Business and economic historians, professors of management, and consultants who comment on government treat the public sector of the economy as “different”; hence they often bypass it in their studies of how work is done. Government officials and their employees contribute to this situation by reinforcing the notion that the public sector does things differently and plays a unique role in society. Agencies are not in the business of making profits but, rather, facilitating and protecting the welfare of the nation. But as a result of these attitudes, they all ignore some basic realities, not the least of which is that the daily work of public officials is often just the same as in the private sector. Because this simple truth is so often overlooked, as a result, we have a paucity of research on how the operational practices of day-to-day work in governments and other public institutions compare to those simultaneously in use in the private sector. We also face the problem that the numbers of studies about work practices in the public sector are far fewer than in the private sector. In addition, government agencies prefer to report more frequently and thoroughly on the activities of other industries, and of the economy as whole, than about themselves. Yet as the first chapter of this book demonstrates, the public sector is large, and depending on how public workers are counted or their budgets tabulated, the largest within the American economy. Does the paucity of studies about the role of the public sector in modern society mean that we are left with the interesting possibility that a massive portion of the American economy functions differently from the private sector?

The question is an intriguing one that we cannot fully answer in this book, but by looking at the day-to-day activities of a variety of government agencies . . .

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