The price of being over informed

Nobody should push the panic button just yet. That is, if your nearest office machine has one -- and it certainly has everything else, doesn't it? But as you glance at this electronic coworker -- your very own Hal, and just as sensitive, so please don't stare -- does it strike you that a basic confusion has developed between the finger that punches the button and the button itself?

An article in Dun's Review on "The Automated Office in the 1980s" refers to "smart copiers" and "dumb copiers" as if these machines were people. This, of course, has become the convention. On the other hand, when it comes to people -- the fingers on the buttons, remember? -- they are covered by the phrase "human resources."

Grouping the two together as the "office support system," the author seems to discover more bugs in the people than in the automated typewriters, word processors, and so on. The robots are all heart, giving their utmost; the folks , on the other hand, are not the efficient cogs they ought to be.

A friend who collects new phrases the way other people collect old coins has passed on to us the mint- fresh term: "system friendliness." A friendly system, it appears, is one that helps the "human resource" working with it to locate and correct his or her dumb human error.

We're not really worried that any computer is ever going to be friendlier than we are. But this subtle, semantic shift that addresses people as equipment and machines as personnel -- and both as component parts of a "system" -- does raise the old science-fiction question: Who's governing system -- th finger or the button?

Welcome to the Information Age, when your old computer buddy will give you an answer even when you don't ask a question.

As far back as the mid-1950s, according to a report in Technology Review, "more people were involved in the manipulation of information than were employed in mining, growing crops, raising cattle, manufacturing goods, or providing personal services." Paul A. Strassmann, a Xerox vice president, believes that "the information-processing capability of the US economy may increase at a compound annual rate of more than 100 percent." Yet production, in the old-fashioned "goods" sense of the word, is increasing only by about 2 percent.

When this means is that information is, in fact, becoming our grossest Gross National Product. The commerce Department estimates that 60 percent of the GNP already is made up of "information production, storage, and transfer."

As Mr. Strassmann delicately puts it: Can a society afford "the luxury of dedicating more than half of its work force to occupations from which no tangible output flows?" But, if the answer is no, what button does a finger push slow down the system?

By its own kind of Parkinson's law, the computer doubles its information, Mr. Strassman notes, even as it halves the pertinence of that information. "Work increases," he states, "to use up available resources, regardless of real jobs to be done." And so information -- often "unnecessary" or "redundant" -- becomes the world's biggest surplus.

The "knowledge workers," plugged into their very friendly but nonstop systems , spend 90 percent of their time "absorbing or giving information," only 8 percent of their time "thinking." More than 20 percent of their working hours are spent in "formal meetings," an- other 5 to 10 percent on the telephone, and a further 10 percent in "travel," presumably to other "formal meetings."

And what do they talk about? Mostly their "information overload" and how to deal with it. This, and not production, threatens to become management's favorite obsession. "Information middlemen" -- "consultants" -- have to be hired to cope with it, and so the pyramid grows of information about information about information. . . .

Maybe it's not time to push the panic button, but an off button might help. And then we "human resources" could ask ourselves the question that not even the friendliest system can answer: What was the question in the first place?

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