Welcome to the new Independent website. We hope you enjoy it and we value your feedback. Please contact us here.


The problem with computers is that they just aren't made to be used by humans

Computers don't work. Or, at least, they don't work very well. They don't really deliver on the grand promise of information at everybody's fingertips - and you don't have to take my word for it.

August and respected institutions have come to this conclusion, including establishments such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and other academic, corporate and governmental concerns with a vested interest in hi-tech.

Thomas Landauer, a former director of Bellcore, one of America's most prestigious research enterprises, has written a book about it. Aptly enough, he calls it The Trouble with Computers. Bellcore, by the way, is where the transistor was invented.

Computers do offer great advantages: indeed, there are businesses that probably couldn't exist without them, or, at least, couldn't operate on a global scale. Airlines, stock exchanges, overnight package delivery, even most modern phone systems rely heavily on computers.

However, the penalty for their use is great. Study after study has shown that the information industry has demonstrated only the barest of efficiency increases, if any, since computers came into widespread use. This stands in sharp contrast to factory automation, where business (if not human) benefits are easily demonstrated by greatly increased efficiency and lower costs.

And why not, you ask?

Computers, it seems, are needy. They need to be set up; their software needs to be installed; they need to be configured, reconfigured, upgraded and reconfigured again at increasingly short intervals.

They always seem to need extra RAM, faster processors and bigger hard drives. They need to be replaced outright when the price of a new computer falls below the cost of an upgrade.

They need support lines, help files and support people. As computers get cheaper, they wind up on more desks, requiring more support. They need things such as fonts. Ever spent half a day worrying about, or installing, fonts on a typewriter? Or on a pencil?

They have file formats. I can't read your Microsoft Word 97 document because I still have Word 5.1. My Windows 95 machine can't read your Macintosh (or UNIX) file. None of my PCs can talk to my company's mainframe very well. If something is changed on the mainframe, it causes unexpected results on my PC and vice versa. Names used to appear in the names field on my database client, but today I'm seeing their salaries. Systems would fix it, except that the person who knows how to do it is on holiday this week. In the meantime, "just work around it".

The information on my hard drive may not be the same as you have: we may not each be making appropriate decisions. When we get to a meeting and discover the discrepancy, we're not sure who's right. After we track down the right numbers, we discover that we both have to redo our work.

By then, we may have wasted days or weeks of our employers' time. Good thing the competition uses computers, too, or our firm would be toast.

The problem, in short, is that computers just aren't made to be used by humans. They were invented by the inhabitants of planet Geek, where arcane is chic and obfuscation is cause for celebration.

But mere complexity, it seems, was not enough. When it became clear that dedicated humans were managing to overcome the formidable barriers in their path, distraction was added. So, when we're not stuck in computer hell, we go off to computer Disneyland.

We surf the Web, try out new software, download stuff, play games and e-mail lost cousins in Lower Volta. We scan the contents of the world anarchists' cartoon FTP site and try to find our name in the archives of all 456 online newspapers.

We get lost exploring features such as recording audio annotations for memos, and attaching video-clips to spreadsheets.

We get 60 e-mail messages a day. We spend much time shuffling through Internet chain letters, unsolicited offers of toe-fungus remedy and CCs of Re: Fwd:s.

We miss critical communiques that have unfortunate subject lines such as "Absolutely URGENT you read this immediately", which we've learned is usually reserved for items like a colleague's price list for vegetable sculptures.

Fortunately, that mighty engine of the information superhighway, the World Wide Web, has come to our rescue.

A clever marketing person recently queried a search engine for information about products similar to her own, reasoning that she might catch details of her competition's marketing programs. She got back a page saying that 320,000 documents matched all or some of her search terms - listing first 1,002. Three hours of viewing documents about the diseases of marine mammals, sex academies and family genealogy were not enough to deter her.

Until she hit the Luddites' Home Page (www.luddites.com). She hasn't used her computer since.