Ned Ludd was the English textile worker who tried to stop the Industrial Revolution in its tracks in the early years of the 19th century. Ludd reckoned that the new breed of weaving and spinning machines was likely to make him and his fellow workers redundant. As such, he thought that if he could destroy the machines he could preserve his way of life. For his efforts his name has been remembered as a description for any person who tries to resist the march of technological progress.
After nearly 17 years in the IT industry I am beginning to gain a certain amount of respect for old Ludd; I see technology intruding on our lives to the detriment of not only our lifestyles but also to the quality of work we generate. While technology is increasingly sold and promoted as a way of saving time, in reality it is consuming more and more of our leisure time.
As baby boomer I find this especially galling. The '70s prophets told us that we would inherit the leisure society. Technology would free us from the drudgery of work and significantly reduce our working week. As a result a whole new breed of industry would arise to cater for our limitless recreational pursuits.
Instead the common complaint I hear is that technology has meant executives find they are no longer able to escape from their work. For example, with a mobile phone a car journey, a family dinner or some other recreational pursuit is always open to a work disturbance. In addition, the executive with a PC at home finds that instead of watching television with their partner there is always an opportunity to be working on some report or other for the office. I even see adverts that place laptop computers next to fishing tackle as if it were possible to fish and surf the net at the same time.
I question whether all this technological intrusion on our leisure time in fact leads to greater productivity. As Parkinson pointed out many years ago "work expands to fill time available". Doing work in your leisure time doesn't reduce the amount of work on your plate; other matters simply get added. In effect, the modern worker now faces a relentless challenge of things to do.
The concern I have was best summed up by a Welsh poet at the start of this century: "What is life if full of care, we have no time to stop and stare." I see the process of reflection, contemplation and review that is a vital component of good decision making being hijacked by constant technological intrusion. Technology might be helping businesses respond more immediately to more and more tasks but is the quality of these responses diminished?Nevertheless, I do recognise the futility of a Ned Ludd response. The lot of the 19th century working man become tolerable not by Ludd's type of industrial vandalism. Instead people channelled their energies into improving the working and social environment. Perhaps then this is what people in IT need to examine: How can we structure our working environment to have time to stop and think?Unfortunately, I haven't a solution to this challenge. Perhaps telecommuting will enable workers to more easily balance personal and work commitments.
Perhaps technology will allow greater freelancing and contractual working arrangements. Perhaps we may see technological solutions to filter out unwanted intrusions into our thinking time. However, I can't preach to anyone on this topic. I'm writing this article during my Christmas holidays!Peter Hind is the manager of User Programs, which includes InTEP, at IDC Australia
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