Angels and Demons versus Clockwork Progress • 16 September 2008 • The SnowBlog
Angels and Demons versus Clockwork Progress
I seem to recall there's a cultural pendulum that swings between rationality and a sort of gothic romanticism. On the one hand you have the slightly dull but worthy view of humans as logical plodders and on the other the idea that progress comes from moments of divine inspiration. I know which is more fun, but what I've never liked about the inspiration model is that it always seems to fall for the idea that 'there's a fine line between genius and madness', that you have to be a troubled borderline schizophrenic to have a really groundbreaking idea. Right at this moment, I'd say the rationalist view is in the ascendant. It's my preferred mode, so I'm happy about that. But one area in which it falls down is via a sort of intellectual Protestant work ethic: the sense that effort equates to output and that putting in the hours is the best way to make progress. I'm not disagreeing with that as a general principle, but one needs to be aware of the exceptions. How many of the things you do each day could be automated if someone took the time and trouble to work out how? Slogging away at dull tasks takes commitment and stamina, but that doesn't mean it's always the right approach. Sometimes it's OK to take a short-cut. In fact, sometimes it's better all round. When I was a management consultant, I did a lot of that sort of thinking. I tended to think of jobs in terms of decision points. If there were no tricky decisions being made, then in principle a task was better suited to a computer. I still feel that way, although I'm mulish about it. I'd rather spend two days programming a solution to something than half a day doing manual data entry to achieve the same thing.
For one-off tasks, that's a bit of a waste of time. But should the task recur, having an automated solution brings enormous productivity gains. And once you know you can do something automatically, you can often think of ways of putting it to new uses. There's a sort of synergy at work which means that the more automated solutions you have, the more each individual solution pays for itself.
To illustrate: Em has put a lot of effort into storing our book data in database form so that we can create Onix messages* easily. Once we've got that, creating web pages where the words are filled in from the relevant Onix messages becomes a possibility. And once we're converting Onix messages into web pages, we can convert them into data files ready to import into InDesign just as easily - which puts us in a good position to create catalogues automatically. And once we can do all that, we offer it to other people as a service. That means that spending two days automating something that can be done manually in half a day not only begins to pay for itself, it leads to gains throughout the business and eventually turns the process of automation into a new revenue stream for the company. It's not only a hundred times more satisfying than manual data entry, it's giving a boost to pretty much everything we do.
So might I suggest a Thought for the Day? Have a quick think about what you do every day that could be automated. If you feel like it, leave a comment describing what you wish you could automate and I'll make suggestions about how you might tackle it.
And a final point to think about: I've been tinkering with computers since before there was such a thing as a PC. But Em used to hate computers. She hated maths and had no interest in programming. These days she writes her own programs and only tells me about it afterwards. Ten years ago, she had no idea how to make the simplest, two-line web page. Now she can earn money from designing gorgeous websites for others - and she can tailor a piece of software to populate that site with information about hundreds of books, a task that could take weeks but now takes seconds. Em didn't go on courses or do a computer science degree. She just read a few books, asked a lot of questions and gave it a go. The chances are that you could do the same if you wanted. You'd save time, you'd make money and you'd have fun. And the only downside is... what? Opting for a romanticist burst of inspiration in an age of predominantly rationalist plodding? That doesn't sound too bad.
*Can you believe there's no Wikipedia entry explaining Onix? What sort of web standard doesn't consider a Wikipedia entry worth the trouble to create?