Tuesday, November 11, 2008
James Cortada: The Digital Hand v. 1: (2004)
"It is time to look at computer applications not just as a series of technological innovations applied in novel ways but also as a series of business and user choices and actions that in turn influenced how people lived and worked. In short, the study of the history of computer applications is far more than a story of technology, science, or engineering; it is the larger story about business practices, the nature of economic activity, and about how people spent vast amounts of their time both at work and in their private lives. . . . since the majority of computer usage during the twentieth century occurred in work settings, and work settings in turn are in companies within industries, looking at industry-centric applications offers a new and open window into the history of computing, business activities, the nature of work, and effects on the economy, society, and the individual. In short, it is the next logical step in understanding the profound role of the digital on the United States." The first of a three-volume work on the history of computing, Cortada's book is an essential survey of the application of computers to business processes. Rather than studying the technology or the businesses producing it, Cortada studies when computers were installed by various industries and what business applications they were used for most often. Nearly all other computer histories describe the machines, innovations, and the major vendors, but give little picture of how computers were being used. Cortada's book shows that computers had a widespread effect on the American economy far before personal computing or the Internet. From accounting to payroll to inventory control, computers were integrated into the key functions of a wide variety of businesses between 1950-1970. That is to say, perhaps the real impact of computers on America has been through the creation of an information infrastructure that has enabled the growth and transformation of business we have seen over the last half century. It is through the non-dramatic and mundane application of computers to common or everyday business practices that computers did the most to alter the course of twentieth-century history. Or as Cortada's title indicates, if the invisible hand of the free market (as described by Adam Smith) was replaced by the visible hand of management and the corporation (Alfred Chandler's claim), then computers have extended and transformed that visible hand, becoming a universal and essential element in the control of businesses and the economy. Most of the book consists of case studies of industries rather than individual firms or the overall economy. For those not coming from a business background, it may be hard to recognize and appreciate the complex dynamics Cortada identifies in how industries adopted information technologies. Not only were mainframe computers usually absorbed into corporations, but those corporations were involved in the competition, associations, and standards of industries. To understand when and how computers were applied to business functions therefore requires careful attention to these more abstract realms of the economy.