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.

cg@gulker.com

News
Professor David Nutt wants to change the way gravely ill patients are treated in Britain
people Why does a former Government tsar believe that mind-altering drugs have a place on prescription?
News
Norway’s ‘The Nordland Line – Minute by Minute, Season by Season’ continues the trend of slow TV
television The BBC have commissioned a series of programmes doing away with high-production values, commentary, script or drama
Arts and Entertainment
art
Sport
Jonny Evans has pleaded not guilty to an FA charge for spitting at Papiss Cisse
football
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
Life and Style
Kate Moss will make a cameo appearance in David Walliams' The Boy in the Dress
fashion
News
The image released by the Salvation Army, using 'The Dress'
news
Sport
Liverpool defender Kolo Toure
football Defender could make history in the FA Cup, but African Cup of Nations win means he's already content
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Consultant - London - £65,000 OTE.

    £65000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Technical Presales Engineer - central London ...

    Recruitment Genius: Physiotherapist / Sports Therapist

    £20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Physiotherapist / Sports Ther...

    Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive / Advisor

    £8 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Sales Executives / Advisors are required...

    Recruitment Genius: Warehouse Operative

    £14000 - £15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An opportunity has arisen for a...

    Day In a Page

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable