Forty years ago, computers were about to revolutionise our lives. They would steal our jobs, said the pessimists. They would give us more leisure time, said the optimists. But what has actually happened?
In his series of reports Dominic Arkwright tries to find out who was right.
In 1963 Harold Wilson made his famous “white heat of technology” speech to the Labour party conference. It was a call to arms for company bosses, who began to see that robots and computers could do many of our jobs better and cheaper than human beings could.
Amid fears of unemployment and curious notions of a computer-dominated tyranny, they began to move and computers DID replace people - especially, initially, in manufacturing. The number of manufacturing jobs has HALVED in the last 25 years. The number of IT-related jobs has DOUBLED in the last five. Many strikes in the 70s and 80s were about the introduction of new technology.
But, overall, the number of jobs in Britain has increased. It’s higher now than ever before. IT and computers certainly push some people on to the dole. But they also create new industries and new jobs.
The most intriguing business questions remains whether computers have increased productivity. If not, why not? Have we been swindled? Or does it just take time, like the introduction of steam, and then electricity, to have a direct impact? The jury, according to some, is still out.
Some analysts believe that part of the reason for this might be the way that companies have introduced technology. It’s not the computers themselves, it’s HOW they’re brought in. It’s argued that too few companies consult the people who are going to have to use the computers, often fail to train them properly, introduce systems that are out of date and far too unwieldy. We have a culture of over-technologising, over-engineering.
And what about the home? There are 350 million computers in the world now. We must like them at least a bit. We use them for booking tickets, flights, hotels. For buying books, for writing books. And yet, many of use seem to fear them, to treat them with suspicion.
We love our mobile phones (not other people’s though) but we don’t love our computers. They treat us with contempt. They demand that we talk to them in a particular way, otherwise they don’t work.
We asked our listeners to tell us stories of automated phone systems. They must be our number one technology hate, from the response we got. But what’s the choice? Shouldn’t we just grow up and accept that life moves on? Because it’s absolutely certain that none of this is going away.
LISTEN TO DOMINIC'S REPORTS: Click on the links in the right hand column.