The Stanly News and Press (Albemarle, NC)

Opinion & Letters to the Editor

July 16, 2013

Electronics: Do they make us any more or less productive?

Tuesday, July 16, 2013 — It was about 1981 when I bought my first computer. It was bought for my farm business and used there. It cost $2,900 plus the cost of some programs needed to use it. Mostly it was used for the business financial records and farm production records. It proved to be worth the cost.

By 1990, that computer had been replaced with a newer, better and cheaper one. In 1996, when I went to Russia for a month as a consultant with the Agency of International Development, I bought my first laptop computer to send and receive emails from home while I was there. It was obvious that electronics were going to be a part of our future. Many people were predicting computers would enable us to produce much more. By becoming much more productive, the total amount of goods and services we could enjoy would substantially increase in the coming years. Now fast forward more than 20 years to the present.  How are we doing?

If the electronics are going to enable us to produce a lot more, it is time to see the production. When we look at our economy, there isn’t much of an increase to see. Unemployment is too high, the Gross Domestic Product is increasing too slowly and our situations haven’t improved that much. Is the promise of production increases not being kept? The answer seems to be “Yes”. But why?

The problem may be how we are using the electronics available to us. While computing may increase our ability to produce products and services, it may also increase our ability to produce the same amount with less time and leave us with more non-productive time. In other words, we aren’t using our time and labor as productively as we used to do.

Let’s look at schools. They all start again in August. For the upper grades and college the class is frequently led by a teacher who talks, writes on the board, shows some slides and/or leads a discussion. But with Wi-Fi in all classrooms enabling students to connect to the internet, it also means everyone can use their smart phone to text their friends everywhere. In many classes the dominate activity is texting – not taking notes or listening to the teacher. This doesn’t improve our education.

Now leave the classroom and go to the workplace away from schools. How are the workers doing? They are getting their work done more quickly with a computer. Then they spend time surfing the internet. Some of the time is spent looking for another job, most say they visit recreational sites, they send personal emails and more than half spend time on the job shopping online while at work. Some spend time looking at cats playing or models wearing swimwear. In any case, studies are showing most employees are using the electronics on the job to do things which are not related to the job and which do not increase their productivity.

The morning I was writing this, I was driving and met a woman walking on the shoulder of the road texting. She never looked up as my car approached. Thankfully, my car was on the road and under control otherwise she would never have known what hit her. On Sundays I often see someone in church during the service texting. Do you think they are sending a message to God?

My point is this. We have never had so many opportunities to communicate with friends anywhere in the world. However, we are reducing our individual productivity by spending so much of our time communicating with others when we could be productive. Only when millions of us become more interested being productive and start spending less time being social will we receive the full productive benefits of the electronic revolution.

Eugene Pickler is an economics professor at Pfeiffer University.

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