Computer systems & misconceptions*

It’s December 31, 1999, 24:00 hours. Everybody anxiously holds his breath. Will all computer systems survive the passage into the new millennium? In a mustard yellow room, hidden deep under Grand Central Terminal in Manhattan, New York, a handful of employees monitor the busiest subway system in the world. Tensions are as high as on any other regular night. “The subways are fully Y2K compliant,” assures the highest- ranking manager of the New York City Transit Authority.

Computer systems

In the mustard yellow control room those present feel relaxed and reflect somewhat amused on their managers’ assurances. The technology they use is not very vulnerable to a digital meltdown: Ticonderoga No.2 pencils and ordinary paper sheets with timetables. Since 1904 the departure and arrival times of the subway trains are noted in exactly the same way on every station.


But times change. From 2000 and twenty to twenty-five years beyond, New York will invest billions of dollars in computer systems to digitalize the subway. Following the footsteps of cities such as Washington, London, San Francisco and Montreal. There will be no guarantee though whether the trains will be running more punctually. Do the benefits outweigh the costs of these new computer systems? (1)

Either way, it’s fascinating to reminiscence the comprehensive influence of modern computer systems. But we do not know much about the effects of this influence. This is not exceptional. It took over half a century “before researchers figured out what influence the telephone had on the spatial planning of the city and the arrangement of organizations.” Buildings became higher, staircases smaller, and centralization the core of the organizational structure.

Faster misunderstandings

What we do know of the influence of computer systems (ICT) is not very encouraging. For years we thought computer systems could replace personal contact and that ICT represents the content of the jobs people perform. Longitudinal research of these hypotheses showed they are false.

For years we thought computer systems contribute to more efficiency and more effect and that ICT could support rational processes of choice. Longitudinal research of these hypotheses showed they are false.

Almost everybody believes that the board, the management and the employees of an organization understand the operations of computer systems and they share the same beliefs about ICT. Longitudinal research of these hypotheses showed they are false.

An immediate effect of all these misconceptions is that the introduction of new computer systems often results in less profit and a lower productivity: “The major consequence of the introduction of new information technologies (…) has not been better communication, only faster misunderstandings.”

18,6 Billion pounds of budget transgression

The actual effects of computer systems on the performance of people appears – not surprisingly – to depend on organizational, social and situational conditions. (2) If we dig a little bit deeper, the outlook for computer systems is somewhat depressing: “The extensive investments in ICT can not be traced as a substantial growth factor in macro-economic statistics.” (3)

Of course it’s possible to question this analysis. That’s why our horizon is expanded with an article on computer systems of the English newspaper The Times of February 2, 2009 (4):

  • The next five years the British government will spend 102,3 billion pounds on computer systems.
  • The survey of The Times of these ICT-projects, until that moment, showed that this amount is exceeded with an estimated 18,6 billion pounds.
  • A plan to digitalize all patient data, runs four years behind on schedule, and will probably cost over 12,7 billion pounds in stead of the original estimated 2,3 billion (= + 10,4 billion).
  • The Japanese company Fujitsu, which participated in this project, probably will enter a claim with the British government of 600 million pounds. The company was asked 650 times to change its product without extra payment.
  • A new ICT-system for the tax-revenue will cost 8,5 billion pounds instead of the original 2,9 (= + 5,6 billion pounds).
  • A program to connect the data systems of the Defence Department rose from 5,8 billion pounds to 7,1 (= + 1,3 billion pounds).
  • Despite substantial down scaling, a system to digitalize all data of the prisoners will cost an estimated extra 456 million pounds.

Free market principles jeopardize computer systems

In 2008 the Dutch Scientific Council for Government Policy (WRR) ventilated its concern over the present and future state of the Dutch infrastructure, amongst which computer systems. (5) During the introduction of free market principles in the public services, attention was primarily given to efficiency and freedom of choice for the consumers. The interests of the sustainability of the systems “have seldom been addressed explicitly.” Sustainability in this case refers to the long-term concerns of innovation, maintenance and availability. The fixation on the interests of shareholders could shift public concerns to the background.

The current crisis of the global financial system, as part of the financial and economic infrastructure, jeopardized public interests to the brink of doom. The extra costs of the British ICT-projects are no comparison to the tremendous financial investments that have to be made to control this crisis. So, if we want to free ourselves from the chains of the current technological determinism, we better go back to that infamous night in that little mustard yellow room in Manhattan and wonder why a Ticonderoga No.2 pencil and some paper sheets could do the trick for almost a hundred years.

* To be continued.


(1) Kennedy, R. (2000). Subways Trade No.2 Pencils for 21st-Century Technology. New York (USA): New York Times (January 24).

(2) See: Shulman, A.D. (1996). Puting Group Information Technology in its Place: Communication and Good Work Group Performance, in Clegg, S.R., Hardy, C. & Nord, W.R. (eds.), The Sage Handbook of Organization Studies (pp. 357-375), London: Sage.

(3) See: Roberts, K.H. and M. Grabowski (1996). Organizations, Technology and Structuring, in Clegg, S.R., Hardy, C. & Nord, W.R. (eds.), The Sage Handbook of Organization Studies (pp. 409-423), London: Sage.

(4) Mostrous, A. and F. Elliott (2009). £18 billion scandal as Whitehall’s IT plans spin out of control. London (UK): The Times (February 3).

(5) Scientific Council of the Government (Wetenschappelijke Raad voor het Regeringsbeleid) (2008). Infrastructures. Time to invest. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.

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