When Machine Goes from Servant to Master

More than ever, to work in the modern world is to be on call at all hours. The computing devices that were supposed to free us up increasingly chain us to their rhythms.

Instead of our offloading time-intensive tasks to our machines, we attempt to match the speed of our network connections,” Douglas Rushkoff wrote this week in The Wall Street Journal, in an article adapted from his new book, Present Shock. “Instead of teaching our technologies to conform to our own innate rhythms, we strive to become more compatible with our machines’ timeless nature.”

None of this—what Rushkoff calls the “digital trap”—is helping us to be better people or professionals. “By letting technology lead the pace, we don’t increase genuine choice or human competence at all,” Rushkoff warned, citing the example of bloggers who “disconnect themselves from the beats they may be covering by working through the screen and keyboard, covering the online versions of their subjects.” What we must try to do now, he said, is defy this trend and use traditional technology to “bring us back into sync.”

That technology can turn from servant into master has been learned the hard way through human history. Peter Drucker often wrote about the importance of remembering that humans are not machines—a reality often disregarded by the traditional assembly line. “It did not use the strengths of the human being but, instead, subordinated human strengths to the requirements of the machine,” Drucker asserted in Managing in Turbulent Times.

Photo credit: JaxGraphix
Photo credit: JaxGraphix

Unfortunately, Drucker saw in computers the emergence of a similar sort of tyranny. “It is fashionable today to measure the utilization of a computer by the number of hours it runs during the day,” Drucker observed in an essay written in 1969 and collected in Technology, Management and Society. But the real test of whether computers were proving helpful was, in Drucker’s eyes, their ability to free up professionals for “direct, personal, face-to-face relationships” with other people.

“By this test, of course, almost no computer today is being used properly,” he wrote. “Most of them are being misused, that is, are being used to justify spending even more time on control rather than to relieve human beings from controlling by giving them information.”

Rushkoff’s example of the desk-bound blogger could apply equally well to the manager. “To know something, to really understand something important, one must look at it from 16 different angles,” Drucker wrote. But that takes time that many managers have little of—and have even less of it they’re computer-bound.

In Drucker’s view, rather than let a computer further rob the manager of time, a manager should use the computer to make time. “Then he can use the rest of his time to think about the important things he cannot really know—people and environment,” Drucker counseled. “These are things he cannot define; he has to take the time to go and look.”

What do you think? How can we gain control of our machines rather than having them control us?