Magazine article The Futurist

The Next Revolution in Computers

Magazine article The Futurist

The Next Revolution in Computers

Article excerpt

Once upon a time, computers were just overly large adding machines. Almost no one dreamed they would change the world -- except John Diebold, author of the prophetic book Automation. Now, Diebold takes a fresh look at the future impacts of computers and automation.

When I wrote Automation over 40 years ago, I did not write it as an exercise in futurism. Instead, I wanted to tell people, particularly managers, that something so significant was brewing that it would change everything, that technologies such as computers and automation would transform the way we do business. As we look back, that impact is easy to recognize, but at the time, it was very difficult.

In the early 1950s, when I was a student at the Harvard Graduate School of Business, I would walk some evenings across the footbridge to where Howard Aiken was building big computers like the Mark 11 at the brand-new computation laboratory I would go back to the business school and suggest to my teachers that they go and take a look at it. None of them did.

Only two of my professors acknowledged that computers were important. One was an accounting professor who knew Hollerith machines (punched-card readers) and understood that advancements in that area would change much of what we were doing. The other was Georges F. Doriot, to whom I dedicated Automation. He said, "Of course the professors aren't going to be interested in any of these things. They stay with the old. They are not interested in the new."

The Road to Automation

It is hard for those who weren't around then to realize, but people had no idea that computers were going to change the world. Instead, they argued arcane things like, "What happens when a truck of scrap metal goes down the street and erases the magnetic records?" There was a lot of missionary work needed in those early years. But, gradually, a few things began to happen, and suddenly there was a rush of developments such as the use of computers by commercial banks, airlines, transportation, and the telephone companies.

Written in the early 1950s, Automation focused on the technology that made things happen. But there was more to it than just technology. During the first big rush, people thought they would buy computers and that would solve everything. But people soon discovered they had to figure out how to accomplish their goals in new ways.

We have learned much in the last 40 years that we can apply to thinking about the twenty-first century. Here are a few of my thoughts:

* It is hard to change old patterns of perception. People see things from a particular frame of reference that they are used to. But much of what they must deal with, especially in information technology, represents radical change, and it is hard for people to step outside and look at it afresh.

* Just because something is technologically possible doesn't mean it will necessarily happen. Many forecasts assume that if something can happen technologically it will happen when it can be done economically. It won't.

* Preconditions are often needed. For example, there is considerable resistance on the part of some doctors to use computers. Once we have a generation of physicians coming out of medical school who have been brought up using computers, however, there will be a completely different approach to medical services.

* Things usually take much longer to happen than you expect them to. Once you have scoped out what is possible and figured out what you can do, you think that everyone else will start to do it. However, it often takes much longer for the obvious to happen.

* You cannot anticipate what people will do with a new technology. Until you provide it at the market price, the only certainty is that people will not use a new technology the way you would expect. Therefore, demonstrations, pilot projects, and competition are important. A good example is how the Xerox 914 photocopier was turned down by IBM. …

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