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This Is Progress?

Twenty years of IT coverage proves one thing: technology gains also bring technology pains.

A few months back, an executive in the software industry received an unexpected E-mail — a message from a former classmate whom he hadn’t heard from in years. It was easy for the ex-classmate to track him down: a Google search on almost any senior executive (or anyone residing in the troposphere, for that matter) tends to produce a match. In fact, the ex-classmate located not only the businessman’s E-mail address but also a recent photograph. “She dropped a note to say hello,” says the bemused executive. “She also commented that I’d put on some weight since college.”

That’s hardly the most egregious example of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Still, it will ring true for anyone who has ever been Googled, paged, beeped, spammed, or otherwise confronted by the dark side of the Information Age. Microchips, global networks, and other technologies have made life vastly more convenient, productive, and safe. But at the same time, technology has created new risks, unforeseen costs, additional responsibilities, and at times, just plain annoyance. We’ve all sat next to a cell phone user who apparently doesn’t know that his handset contains a microphone, spent the Monday after a vacation deleting huge numbers of unwanted E-mail messages, and prowled the aisles of the local electronics superstore in search of antivirus software, memory add-ons, and other paraphernalia that will help us squeeze a little more life from our flagging home computers.

Sometimes it seems that Newton’s Third Law should be tweaked for the Digital Age: “For every convenience there is an equal and opposite inconvenience.”

Move from the consumer side to the corporate side, and it gets worse — at least as a consumer you don’t have to sit through 12 meetings before you decide on a course of action. And a dozen more to reverse that course.

Indeed, it’s not surprising that a look back at the technology coverage in CFO during the past 20 years reveals stories about not only scientific breakthroughs, visionary leaders, and dot-com fortunes, but also technological headaches, missteps, and outright failures. How misleading the sense of steady progress.

The Old Acoustic-Coupler Trick

The very first article on IT ever to grace these pages, in fact, perfectly encapsulates the ensuing two decades. It reviewed several “personal productivity software” packages, priced from $50 to $200, which could potentially replace a CFO’s Filofax organizer (at less cost!) by allowing the user to load contact information, meeting schedules, and the like onto a “microcomputer.” Epson offered a package (proprietary, of course) that allowed certain functions to be executed with the single stroke of a dedicated key. To make that possible, however, the manufacturer had to supply a new, extended keyboard, further impinging upon whatever desk space wasn’t occupied by the gigantic monitor. That meant you pretty much had to computerize your Filofax and Rolodex, because there was no longer any place to put them.

Even back then, ROI analysis loomed large. We pointed out that, at an average cost of $125, these software programs cost less than a deluxe Filofax (then $150) and could do things a Filofax could not (autodial your telephone, for example, or provide stationery templates). Of course, by the time we finished explaining how the programs worked (“think of three transparency masters laid one on top of the other on an overhead projector”), the Filofax was sounding better and better. Then as now, the computer scored points for its ability to integrate a number of disparate capabilities, but in retrospect we should have acknowledged that the Filofax had a distinct edge in the portability department.

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