March 10, 2015

Systems win

From A Spreadsheet Way of Knowledge, Steven Levy, originally published in November 1984 Harper’s:

…The spreadsheet user has no way of quantifying a corporate tradition or the misery of stockholders or whether the headaches of a drawn out takeover bid will ultimately harm the corporate climates of the firms involved.

The flexibility of spreadsheets can encourage other heartless moves from headquarters. It is no great drain on an executive’s time to experiment with all sorts of odd, even insidious. He might ask “What if we dropped our pension plan?” Then he might run his idea through a spreadsheet and find a huge gain in capital- and there would be an unthinkable, in hard figures.

From Close to the Machine, Ellen Ullman, 1997 (86-7)

I remembered the first time I saw a system infect its owner… The company’s employees had been there for ten and twenty years, particularly the women, mostly clerical workers. They were the ones who would be most affected by the new system, yet they went about learning it with a homey cheerfulness that surprised me.

…But just after we ordered dessert, Mr. Banner leaned over to me and asked, “Can you keep track of keystrokes?”…

“I don’t know offhand. But why? Why would you want to do that?”…

“Well, take Mary. I’d like to know everything that Mary does in a day.”

Mary was the receptionist and general office manager. She was [the owner’s] oldest employee, twenty-six years. As I recalled, Mary knew every one of the company’s clients by name. For the first several years of her employment, when [the owner’s] kids were small, she used to pick them up from school, take them home, and pour them milk.

“But why do you want to keep an eye on Mary? She’s doing very well with the system. I mean, is there a problem?”

“Oh, no. No problem,” said [the owner], “but, you know … Well, I’m just curious. All those years she’s been out running things, and now I can find out exactly what she does.”

“So you want to know about Mary just because you can?” I asked….

“Hmm. That’s it, I suppose. The way I look at it, I’ve just spent all this money on a system, and now I get to use it the way I’d like to.”…

The system was installed, it ran, and it spoke to him: you can know every little thing you always wanted to know. You can keep an eye on the woman you trusted to pick up your kids from kindergarten. You can count every keystroke, and you want to count them simply because it’s possible. You own the system, it’s your data, you have power over it; and, once the system gives you the power, you suddenly can’t help yourself from wanting more.

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