A reflection by Prof. Andrew Basden
… imagine the end of history, with the Supreme God on the Seat of Final Authority, with the senior managers and top researchers and developers of the world’s information technology industry ranged before him. Imagine him speaking to them:
“According to one of you, in the year 1989, the worldwide spend on information technology was $300 billion. I want to ask you: did you provide $300 billion worth of benefit to the world that year? Or, if you allow that it takes time for benefits to accrue, did the world see $300 billion worth of benefits in 1994?
“You are silent. I gave you a world brimming with potential, in your case, the benefit of information technology. Some of you recognised the potential - potential to remove injustices by allowing the powerless better access to the information and advice, potential to match supply and demand so as to reduce famine. But did this happen?
“You are silent, so let me ask you: What did you all do with I.T.? You there, with your hand up? An I.T. researcher / developer, I see.
“So, you and your team produced a new user interface called Windows, that made computers easier to use. Well, that’s a benefit of sorts. But let us unpack it: there are two questions I want to ask. First, did it really make computers easier to use? Some of your own people took a survey and found that one Windows product, subtitled ‘3’, I believe, actually reduced the productivity of most users. No, your case is not yet made. So let me ask the second question: even if it had made computers easier to use, of what benefit is that? More technological benefits like ease of use are no real benefits in themselves. I can see you are getting my point now.
“Would it not be true to say that you yourselves did receive benefit from your work in I.T.? The benefits you received were of at least three kinds: enhanced reputation among your peers, enhanced self satisfaction and enhanced income. Though some of you researchers did not achieve all three, am I not basically right? And am I not right in saying that these benefits are largely self-centred? You yourselves received the reward, while the hungry and powerless still suffered.
“What about you I.T. business people: what benefit did you bring to the world through your investment in and use of I.T.?
“You there, you say that information technology increased your efficiency. Now let me get this right: what do you mean by efficiency? Oh I see, so that more is produced by fewer people. OK, of what value is efficiency, and to whom is the benefit? To your company, you say, so that it would be more competitive. But why should it be more competitive? So it could employ more people, you say. But I smell an inconsistency here. No, efficiency is no real benefit by itself, whichever way you look at it.
“You have your hand up: you say that I.T. could provide greater choice, greater convenience? You give the example of a travel agent, being able to offer a wider range of holidays to customers. I approve the desire to serve (though let us replace the word ‘customer’ by the word ‘person’). And I know that times of refreshment are necessary for the human soul. But let‘s dig a bit deeper. What sort of holidays? Did your I.T. system target those who really needed a holiday, or the wealthy ones - who just wanted something to tickle their fancies, or something to boast of?
“So you see: the supposed ‘benefits’ you sought to provide were either no real benefits at all, or were benefits only to yourselves, or provided benefit only to those who already had more than enough. From what I have heard so far, nobody has even begun to make the case that the world received anything near $300 billion worth of benefits from information technology. You have used its potential for your own ends, you have squandered it on the desires of those around you, you have used it to enhance your power. Let me quote something I said several thousand years ago to the leaders of a nation I prospered:
“You are doomed, you shepherds of Israel! You take care of yourselves, but never tend the sheep. You drink the milk, wear clothes made from the wool, and kill and eat the finest sheep. But you never tend the sheep. You have not taken care of the weak ones, healed the ones that are sick, bandaged the ones that are hurt, brought back the ones that wandered off, or looked for the ones that were lost. Instead, you treated them cruelly.
“Do you see the parallel? Now, do you have anything to say in your defence?
“You there: you claim you were constrained by what the people wanted, by what you call ‘market forces’. But, let me ask you: did you have to sell your soul to market forces? Look at history: I gave my blessing to those who went against what people wanted at the time and sought instead to serve the interests of justice. Look at Cadbury and Lever in the nineteenth century. Another hand up: it was the politicians, you say, who set up the economic and political climate. As for the political climate, you always had the freedom to work independently of it. I think we have to face it: in reality, you found it more convenient, less effort, more popular, and more rewarding to yourselves, to acquiesce. In most cases, you really have no defence.
“Still the poor and powerless suffered, still my world was polluted and damaged, still my species were driven in extinction, even though I had given you the potential means of doing something about it. You spent trillions of dollars - all for no real end. And you have no defence.
“Now, I know that a few of you, probably less than 0.5%, do know me. You committed yourselves to me and have genuinely tried to bring about the benefit that I put into the potential of I.T.. You made mistakes and did not do all that you could, but because you committed yourselves to me, I committed myself to you and have already taken upon myself the penalty for your short-comings.
“But to the rest of you I say: Away from me, you evil-doers. I never knew you. You are for the Outer Darkness, where you will cry and gnash your teeth at the opportunities you rejected.
“Take them away. Then fetch me the economists, and have the top politicians next in line …”
Imagine. Perhaps we had better consider and change our ways?
3 March 1994
Copyright ©1994 by Andrew Basden. All rights reserved. No part of this article may be reproduced in any form or by any means without permission in writing from the author.