Computers and the Information Age

Many of us have to deal with computers in all facets of our life. Yet all too often we hear that either the computer is down or that the system won’t let us do what we want it to. Worse yet, perhaps the computer can do what we want, but nobody seems to know how to do it (except the guru over in the corner).

What’s the problem? Obviously, all our computer applications are inadequate to do the job that we want. They are far too difficult to use, can’t understand us, and refuse to make our lives any easier.  To make matters worse, they probably use old technology and need replacing.

So, what should we do? Should we throw away the old systems and replace them with shiny new ones, re-engineered to save us money? After all, the new systems will have all the new features that will make our job far more fun!

This time we will do the job properly. We will make sure that we have an integrated environment where everything works together. We will have one database that is easy to understand and that will manage all our information. We will use one common programming language to develop theses system. Clearly, the operation of all these new systems will be a breeze, because we will use one vendor’s technology.

What is wrong with this scenario? Does it remind you of the way things once were? We used to have computer systems that ran on a central mainframe. The IS department used to have de facto ownership of all our computer applications. We kept all of our records in a central database. Our computer people wrote most of our application programs in COBOL. Usually, we used IBM’s technology solution. We were happy and secure in the knowledge that this was the correct and proper way to do things.

But, this happy, safe scenario is a scene from the past. It reminds us of the old ways of computing. Fie to these new ideas that are trying to drag us, kicking and screaming, into the information age. Who needs them, anyway?

Or is it that we may need new solutions to our problems? Perhaps the old ways were not working. After all, these colorful graphical systems are fun. Surely you have tried the Internet?

Today, we like to think of building our systems from component parts, or objects. We like objects because they have well-defined boundaries. We know how to plug objects into each other because they use standard interfaces that are accepted by everybody. This is a feature of object-oriented computing. When we use a computer system we tell it what we want, and not how it is to be done. This is a non-procedural system, one which does not need instructions. The system works when we want it to, on our request, and not when someone else decides to do it for us. This is event-driven processing. Our data is stored in many different places, usually where it is needed and used. This is distributed information management.

We are inundated with quotes from experts that tell us this new way is better, faster, and cheaper.  They say we can build computer systems that actually work!  Look at all the testimonials!  On the other hand, there are those disturbing little thoughts that pop up … Unix was built in 1968 as a research project at MIT and it was originally hacked together with bailing wire and spit and C, and we are still trying to use it.  We are currently spending millions of dollars on outsourcing and help desks because nobody can understand computer stuff. And open-source software means that software is free so why should anyone have to pay for anything?  And why should we have to pay to craft a web page that runs in all browsers?  And why is it that business is constantly looking for IT to provide value?  And why is it that Dilbert is the most popular cartoon?

It is no wonder that these new ideas can be foreign to those of use who were brought up on the old computing model. Change can be truly frightening.  Do we wonder why business leaders most often use the excuse that they can’t understand the technology?

The new world exists. The information age is here today. When we are faced with people who promote the old, safe notion of traditional systems we need to help them grow into the new world. Birth is a traumatic experience, and institutions that cannot adapt will be pushed aside as stillborn anachronisms. Welcome to the information age.