Some Unintended Social Consequences of Computers

by Thomas L. Wayburn, PhD

At the time this was written, Dr. Wayburn was the Chairman of the Computer Applications Committee of the South Texas Section of the American Institute of Chemical Engineers (AIChE).  He was the winner of the 1987 Ted Peterson Award presented by the Computing and Systems Technology Division of the AIChE.

Do Labor-Saving Devices Cause More Work?

In 1957, when I began to program computers, I worked 37.5 hours per week and earned about one-twentieth of what the highest paid workers earned.  I was excited about the possibilities of the computer then, and, indeed, I have seen wonders, not the least of which is the ease with which I am able to write this paper.  In 1957, success in chemical engineering was very nearly proportional to one's ability to withstand tedium.  The rigorous design of a distillation column might involve a month of mind-numbing “cranking” on a mechanical calculator.  Nowadays, this calculation, although still difficult, takes only a few seconds on a desktop computer.  Nevertheless, at my last job, where I designed even better software to solve these problems, I worked fifty hours a week and earned about one-hundredth of what the highest paid “workers” earn, even though I am much further along in my career.

I wrote computer programs to eliminate tedium and to increase productivity and that has been accomplished to a remarkable degree, but the increased productivity has not resulted in shorter working hours and higher pay for engineers in relation to other professions.  Was I naive to imagine that the labor saved by a labor-saving device would be passed on to the worker in the form of more leisure and a share in the wealth  generated by the improved processes?  I believe I was both naive and prescient.  What has gone wrong?

In 1957, practically no one realized that the world, at least the United States, was approaching the limits of growth and that additional growth would be causing problems that might pose impenetrable barriers to growth, namely, pollution, poverty, and exhaustion of readily available supplies of high-grade energy.  We should have been thinking about slowing economic growth, which would have permitted engineers to concentrate on improving the quality of life rather than on increasing the quantity of material and energy we would consume.  This could have been achieved with a twenty-hour week.  Instead, we were very much caught up in an expansion-and-conquest mentality, but the combination of scarcer energy and unbridled consumerism resulted in a greater percentage of our effort being directed toward competition for wealth and power and a smaller percentage applied to the production of the things we really need to live.  Now we talk about an information economy, with millions of people slaving over computers to capture a larger share of the market for their employers, presumably at the expense of their competitors, but very few of us are producing what we might properly call wealth.  We can't eat information.  Rather than the developers of technology (with a few notable exceptions), the businessmen, salesmen, dealmakers, and promoters are siphoning off most of the money.  Could it be that the computer is being misused?

[Note in proof 9-6-96:  You bet it is and I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.  I should be earning about $150,000 per year (more would be sheer greed) and I should work no more than 20 hours per week.  These business parasites owe me big-time.  They had better watch their steps; I have half a mind to take it out of their hides.  (Deleted 10-22-96.)]

On February 11, 1996, a cartoon by Toles appeared in the Houston Chronicle, an establishment newspaper.  One worker is asking, “Remember back in the 50s we looked forward to the days when machines would be doing all the work?”  “And here they are!” answers the second worker, to which the first worker replies, “I know.  Now remind me why we thought we’d still be getting paid.”  The cartoonist does not expect this question to be answered seriously, but I would like to surprise him.  Among the transactions that take place in ordinary garden-variety employment, the least important are (1) the labor performed by the employee and (2) the wages received by him.  The important considerations are (1) the impact on the environment, including the consumption of non-renewable resources, and (2) the portion of his productivity that actually enables people to live, e.g., growing of edible plants, manufacture of clothing, etc. – as opposed to making deals, buying and selling, and increasing the proportion of the pie expropriated by his employer.

For this reason and others of an ethical and pragmatic nature, the institution of employment should be replaced by something in the social contract that provides each individual with his fair and equal share of the economic dividend whether he adds to it or not, since nothing at all can be produced except by the expenditure of his fair and equal share of the renewable resources bequeathed by Mother Nature (or, if you prefer, God) to every individual alive now or expected to be alive at some time in the future in a steady-state or shrinking population of human souls.

Is Big Brother Watching You?

In the mid-1960s, I proposed what I called a process information control system.  It was supposed to eliminate the most common mistake in engineering, namely, failure to update all process information affected by a design change.  In addition, it was supposed to get the paper off our desks and make certain that we all had access to the latest information.  No one in my company was interested then; but, nowadays, almost all engineering and construction companies have some kind of technology like this or they are busily engaged in acquiring it.  (Speaking of unintended effects, no one has been more surprised than I by the mountains of paper generated by computer activities, but that is not my chief concern here.)

Have you ever noticed that the telephone operator is not always completely courteous?  Did you know that he (or she) is being monitored automatically to determine how many customers per minute he handles?  The owner of a software company that produces process-information-control software claims that engineers will benefit from increased productivity, while, at the same time, he points out that management can monitor what engineers are doing.  How long will it be before engineers are evaluated by how many numbers per hour they enter into the data base, regardless of whether the datum resulted from thought and analysis or was looked up in a handbook?  This should remind college professors of the way college deans count publications - not even weigh them – just count them.

At a recent conference on computer-aided process design, Michael J. Wozny [1] espoused a design methodology commonly known as concurrent engineering (CE).  The idea of CE is to speed up the design phase of a large project, like the design of a jet plane, by performing tasks in parallel. It's like applying parallel computing concepts to people - and I'm afraid the result will be to make people more like machines.  I'm afraid that CE will do for engineers what mass production did for automobile craftsmen.  But, in addition, it will make it much easier for Big Brother to keep an eye on what we are doing, assuming, of course, that Big Brother exists.

Do We Value Computers More Than People?

Most holders of computer science degrees neglect the study of nature to study computers and software, which are works of man rather than nature (if I may be permitted to distinguish between man and nature).  Some computer scientists, however, are studying the nature of human beings by trying to build computers that replicate human thought processes, which, as Penrose [2] has shown, cannot be done.  Nevertheless, society has exhibited a tendency to devalue humanity in favor of computers as is illustrated by the following absurd circumstance:  Lately, a young man has been convicted of tampering with the “mind” of a computer, remotely, over the phone, without leaving his own dwelling place, and without coming into physical contact with the computer, but by exploiting the computer's attributes, e.g., the ability to answer the phone, etc.

On the other hand, thousands of telemarketers and telephone surveyists are tampering with the minds of humans by calling them on their private phones and attempting to sell them something or extract information from them, whether it's in their best interests or not, i.e., without considering their interests, and possibly interrupting important activities, which might be sleep, bathing, eating, recuperating from an illness, or even having sex!  I think it is indicative of the relative importance that we place on computers and human beings that tampering with a computer's “mind” is regarded as a crime and tampering with a human mind is regarded as a legitimate activity.  (Clearly, I don't want my files purged by a hacker, but I don't need someone waking me up to find out whether I favor more airports or more highways, since I favor neither and many respondents will imagine, falsely, that they must favor one or the other.)

What Will Happen to People Who Are Not Compatible with Computers?

Many Americans believe they are free.  In actuality, they are free only to behave like everyone else.  Even a thought experiment is sufficient to test the bounds of one's freedom, however the necessity to live with computers is the example of narrowness of choice that I wish to discuss here.  I discern four classes of people according to their relationship with computers.  The first class finds computers baffling, cannot cope with them, but enjoys the power to relegate computer work to others.  The second class relates to computers no better than does the first class but does not enjoy the privilege of passing on copelessness to others.  These people tend to become disadvantaged and it is they who concern me.  The third class of people (classified according to their relationship with the computer) are those who use computers but are not computer whizzes.  This is the largest class.  These people tend to become dehumanized by the computer as they must adapt themselves to it rather than it to them, “user-friendliness” notwithstanding.  The fourth class are the computer whizzes and hackers who have created the computer revolution.  They are having a good time even if they aren't getting rich (and some are getting rich), but I wonder if they understand the social consequences of what they are doing.

But it is the class of people who cannot cope with computers and who cannot order someone else to cope with computers whose range of choices is being restricted unjustly.  I think we need computer-free zones.  But a person working without a computer cannot compete with a person who uses one.  As far back as 1947 Norbert Weiner [3] anticipated this difficulty when he wrote that “... any labor that accepts the conditions of competition with slave labor [Weiner is referring to automation and computers as slave labor] accepts the conditions of slave labor, and is essentially slave labor.  The key word of this statement is competition.”  A few lines later he wrote, “However, taking the second [industrial] revolution as accomplished, the average human being of mediocre attainments or less has nothing to sell that is worth anyone's money to buy.  The answer, of course, is to have a society based on human values other than buying or selling.  To arrive at this society we need a good deal of planning and a good deal of struggle - which, if the best comes to the best, may be on the plane of ideas, and otherwise - who knows?”

Of Things Not Treated

Certainly, I have ignored many unintended effects of - and difficulties, both great and small, created by - the computer.  Among these are (i) the inevitable conflict between diversity and compatibility of software and hardware, i.e., the conflict between free expression and standards; (ii) ethical dilemmas near the narrow boundary between intellectual property and intellectual slavery; (iii) the enormous incentive to market vaporware (pre-existent or nonexistent software); (iv) the problem of determining the optimum time to switch to new versions of standard software so as to take advantage of new features without spending too much time studying computer manuals; and (v) the excessive application of computer technology to questionable enterprises.  Finally, the arguments put forth by Truesdell [4] to show that computers have been and continue to be harmful to science and mathematics and, indeed, to all of humanity cannot be dismissed lightly.


1. Wozny, Michael J., "Toward a Theory and Methodology of Design," Foundations of Computer-Aided Design, Eds. J. J. Siirola, I. E. Grossmann, G. Stephanopoulos, Elsevier, New York (1990).

2. Penrose, Roger, The Emperor's New Mind, Oxford University Press, New York (1989).

3. Weiner, Norbert, Cybernetics, John Wiley, New York (1948).

4. Truesdell, C., "The Computer: Ruin of Science and Threat to Mankind," in An Idiot's Fugitive Essays on Science, Springer-Verlag, New York (1984)

Houston, Texas

March 31, 1991

Revised for Lawrence Evans October 22, 1996