July 23, 2011    Business

Computers No Longer Increase Productivity

In the last 10 years, I don’t think computers increased our productivity. The processing power of our computers increased dramatically in that period, but for the vast majority of things we do on computers, the increase in power is actually irrelevant because the bottleneck is our brain powers; how quickly we can respond to computers. For instance, as I type this essay, my computer is using a tiny fraction of its power. The computer I was using 25 years ago had more than enough processing power to handle what I’m doing right now. In terms of writing (which is still a huge chunk of what we do on computers), the advancement in computer hardware was pretty much irrelevant. It didn’t make us write any faster, because the bottleneck is our own brains, not computers.

In 1995, Microsoft Word already had more features than we would ever use. Whatever they added or presumably “improved” since then did not increase our productivity. Microsoft Word 2000 running on Windows XP launched on my machine within a few seconds, literally. Now, Word 2008 running on my relatively recent MacBook Pro takes over 15 seconds to launch. The same holds true for other applications I use, like Photoshop. They used to launch much faster.

As the processing power increased, software developers took advantage of it to make the user interface look much slicker. There is no doubt these applications and operating systems look significantly better today as compared to 10 years ago, but if we were to think about how much this contributed to our productivity, it’s hardly measurable.

As amazing as today’s computers are, from the point of view of productivity, not much has changed since about 10 years ago. Sure, we can now do video conferencing, but how much does video conferencing improve our productivity? Is the productivity increase even measurable as compared to teleconference? Sure, the video games these days are spectacular and stunningly realistic, but at the end of the day, they are just games; they do not increase our productivity. Sure we can be running many different applications at the same time, but again, our brains cannot pay attention to them simultaneously. So, the bottleneck is again our brains. Even if our computers can run 1,000 applications simultaneously, it’s not going to increase our productivity. Once the computers became capable of running 5 applications at the same time, that was good enough for all intents and purposes. Beyond that, we reached a point of diminishing returns. In fact, being able to run so many applications at the same time increased the amount of distractions. Some people have windows open for Twitter, Facebook, IM, Skype, calendar and email at all times.

There are certainly exceptions. If your business is 3D animation, computers are still not fast enough. The increase in processing power can hardly catch up with the increase in the frame size of the videos and the expectation of realism. In 3D animation, processors are often running at full capacity 24/7, but a very small percentage of computers are used in this way. The vast majority are idling just like mine is right now.

When any particular task is automated by computers for the first time, the increase in productivity is dramatic. When desktop publishing became a reality, it enabled one person to do what used to take a whole team of people to achieve. The same happened to film/video editing. Photo retouching and processing. Accounting. Trading. Composing and recording music. Etc.. But once the initial seismic shifts were complete, the rates at which productivity increased slowed down, and at one point reached a plateau, because the bottleneck was no longer the computers. Now that most things that can be automated with computers have already been automated, the majority of them have already hit the plateau. 

At this point, the computer industry is not selling solutions to increase productivity; they are selling the myth of productivity that solves their own need to make money. Their main tactic is to make things obsolete on purpose. These technologies do not naturally become obsolete; the industry makes them obsolete to create opportunities for them to make money, to sustain and guarantee their own income. For instance, Microsoft recently changed the file format for Word and some people started sending around files with the new format. If you receive them, and if you don’t have the latest version of Word, you can’t open them; so you are forced to upgrade even if you have no use for any of the new features.

This is very much like what happened in the auto industry. At one point, probably around the 70s, the advancement in automobiles stopped contributing to productivity. For the purpose of going from point A to point B as quickly, safely, and cheaply as possible, the cars in the 70s were already good enough. They kept making faster cars but there was a practical limit on how fast a car can travel. Even if your car can reach 200 miles per hour, there is no use for that ability. It’s too dangerous, so there is no rational or practical reason for making faster cars, but they never stopped. Instead of making faster cars, they could have focused on fuel efficiency, but they didn’t until recently. That is, instead of focusing on things that are more tangible and practical (like productivity), they applied their intelligence and creativity to things that are more emotionally or psychologically appealing. That is exactly what the computer industry is doing also. They are no longer focused on productivity but on what appeal to people at the emotional level. Just as in the auto industry, there is a lot of shameful waste in the computer industry.