As there may be some readers who have not yet become intimately acquainted with the computer, I hope I may be forgiven if I offer a brief description of what it can do. 'Computer' is an unfortunate name because it encourages us to think of a highly versatile invention as if it were little more than a glorified abacus. The computer is certainly very good at performing arithmetical calculations, but its real strength lies in other attributes without which its calculating ability would be of only limited use.
The computer has a superlative memory which is measured in bytes, each byte being the equivalent of a printable character such as a letter of the alphabet, a punctuation mark, or some other symbol. In practice, because the byte is so small, larger units such as the Kilobyte (KB = 1, 000 bytes), Megabyte (MB = 1,000,000 bytes) and Gigabyte (GB = 1,000,000,000 bytes) are more useful. It may be helpful to reflect that the King James version of the Holy Bible contains about four-and-a-half MB. Thus a PC with only a trivial 5 MB of storage capacity could at one sitting memorise the entire contents of the Bible and reproduce them, years later, not just word for word but letter by letter, comma by comma and misprint by misprint. Allied to this prodigious ability to store data, the computer also exhibits a remarkable facility for rapid recall.
The computer can arrange and re-arrange the contents of its memory in accordance with rules and, of course, it can remember the rules. This means that if you tell it something once, it will be able to use that snippet of information over and over again in all sorts of different combinations with other snippets of information.
One of the best-known examples of this is financial analysis. If she were alive today, Mrs Beeton (author of 'The Book of Household Management' and a contemporary of Charles Babbage) would probably use a computer to classify payments made or received under such specific heads as butcher, baker and candlestick-maker; and re-arrange them if required under other headings such as cook, house-keeper, gardener, furniture, tax-deductible and non-tax-deductible, and any other classification she might find useful to keep a sharp eye on where the money was going. So if we keep transaction details not on paper but in the memory of a computer, the machine can itself produce all the reports, analyses and 'books of account' we could possibly need.
Needless to say, the accounting profession was among the first to seize on this useful attribute, and for some years they established a virtual monopoly over the control of computers in business. This put an effective brake on the development of many more productive applications. With the advent of the Personal Computer, the productive potential of the programmable machine became obvious to a wider populace and computers large and small now play significant parts in the operational revenue-earning functions of the business while the tidying-up and score-keeping functions are relegated to their proper place in the background.
The computer can make exact copies of its memory so that if one machine 'goes sick' or 'dies', a healthy relative can be given a memory transplant and take over where its predecessor left off without anybody noticing unless, of course, a more up-to-date machine gives a marked improvement in performance. Compare that with what happens when a human employee dies or goes sick or even takes a holiday.
In conjunction with other devices such as visual display units and printers, the computer can present the results of its work in various ways to its human employers. Advances in speech recognition and language translation software have already transformed the machine into a moderately useful shorthand typist and interpreter. The Internet enables machines to communicate with one another and exchange data, information, and software programs at very high speed, usually with none of the loss of meaning that tends to occur when human beings converse.
The computer merges the typewriter, the drawing board, the telephone, and the filing cabinet. It can perform the functions of a filing clerk more rapidly and reliably than any filing clerk ever could, and it can be 'taught' to act as a competent secretary. A machine no bigger than a book can accompany the traveller who can use its powers of communication to bring all the normal office facilities to the nearest telephone. It is the next best thing to the knowledge one carries 'in one's head'. It reminds us that the office is not a place but an activity whose principal purpose is to facilitate the exchange of information between authorised persons.
When roads are choked with rush-hour traffic; when public transport is expensive, inconvenient and unreliable; and when the annual rent of an urban office is a major item in the expenditure account, it must make sense for organisations to enable more of their workers to do more of their work at home and exchange the fruits of their labours by telephone. Of course, they need to meet occasionally; but they need not be thrust together from nine to five on five days a week in circumstances where mutual interference is at least as likely as mutual co-operation.
However, to take full advantage of telecommuting, traditional organisational structures must be drastically revised.
For all the hype about 'artificial intelligence', the computer can't think: it can only obey rules. So we must think for it, and then translate the results of our thinking into rules the computer can obey. It will then apply these rules over and over again absolutely faithfully and at great speed to any accessible computer-readable data whether these are defined in the rules themselves or supplied (input) by an operator. Thus what seems to be artificial intelligence is really only a conjuring trick resulting from a carefully crafted collection of commands constituting what we call a computer program.
Because the computer can't think, it can't tolerate ambiguity. So we must be very clear and precise, even pedantic, when we are giving the machine its orders. When a computer doesn't 'understand' what we mean, it puts on a masterly display of 'dumb insolence'. When we want the computer to do something for us, we must spell out our instructions in minute detail so that a machine can 'make sense' of them. Because few directors or managers have the time, inclination and technical expertise needed to do this, it is usually more efficient to entrust this 'coding' task to specialist computer programmers.
Programmers are good at communicating with computers: not all of them are equally good at communicating with directors and managers of complex businesses. This gave rise to the intermediate trade or profession of business systems analyst or 'information engineer' whose task it is to bridge the communications gap between the directors or managers and the programmer who has to provide the final links in the harness that enables the computer to achieve the results required by the directors of the business.
In this respect, harnessing new technology is no different from harnessing a horse to a plough. It was more important for the farmer to know and trust his blacksmith than to understand metallurgy. However, the blacksmith needed to know enough about horses and farming to understand the farmer's requirements.
The main reason why it may be difficult to come to grips with computers and their potential uses is that for the first time in history the electronic computer confronts us with a multi-purpose machine. We have no difficulty in understanding what complex single-purpose machines such as cars, dish-washers or video-recorders can do for us. But the computer can do so many things in so many different ways that it is hard to define what it might be able to do for us and in what circumstances. The secret of success in computer applications is to design the rules for each application in such a way that the computer appears to the user to be a single-purpose machine. Then the writing machine, the telephone directory machine, the invoice-producing machine, and the electronic mail machine are all different machines which just happen to share the same screen, keyboard, mouse, and filing cabinet.
Properly harnessed, the computer can become a powerful mental amplifier. But as such, the computer is only as good as the mentality it amplifies: the occupant of the most exalted throne in the world still sits on his own posterior. The finest computer will amplify our mistakes just as enthusiastically as our flashes of brilliance. One consequence of this is that is it usually futile to try to justify the purchase of a computer by attempting to forecast a return on the investment unless the purchase is preceded by a clear and detailed specification of the results the installed system is expected to produce and an assurance from the supplier that the supplied system will produce the results as specified. Because the computer is a mental amplifier, the results it produces will depend primarily on the mind or minds which contributed to the system specification.
The words 'or minds' in the last paragraph are important. They remind us that there is no limit to the number of minds which can contribute to the computer's programs. As long as the final result is complete and consistent and fully in accord with the requirements of the owner organisation, an inspired idea from one person can be added to a flash of brilliance from another, modified by the practical experience of a third, and combined with a technical contribution from a fourth, to produce a result incomparably more effective than could be realised without the integration and amplification that only the computer makes possible.
The computer's powers of memory enable this process to be continued indefinitely. It allows an organisation's information systems to evolve by progressive enhancement from one generation to another. This is true regardless of whether the generations are of machines or of programs or of people.
The computer-driven system can become the custodian of the corporate memory and thus perpetuate the ethos of the founders of the business more effectively than was formerly possible. It fosters the formation and preservation of a corporate identity which can survive growth, geographic dispersion, and even the demise of its founders.
This property of computers endows mankind with a formidable new power whose full significance will take time to become apparent. Like all new powers, it may be used for good or ill. It clearly has far-reaching implications for organisations whose continuity is intended to extend beyond the working life spans of the individuals who compose them. If the directors of such organisations do not use it to amplify their own mental powers and impose their own moral principles, other (possibly less well-motivated people) will fill the vacuum and take advantage of the opportunity to further their own interests, whether or not these interests are compatible with the objectives of the host organisation.
It must surely make sense for every director who gets an inkling of the computer's potential to take some trouble to harness it to amplify his or her own powers of control over the business and exert a beneficial influence on its further development.