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"Madmen in authority." (impact of information technology) (The Soft Machine)

Moderator: Ladies and gentlemen, good evening and welcome to this very special TV panel discussion between three of our most distinguished economists and business experts. The world is still adjusting to last week's extraordinary news of a sponsored Celebrity Thaw from the body-banks of the Institute for Advanced Cryogenics. On my left I am delighted to introduce John Maynard Keynes, author of the blockbuster treatise, The General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Beside him is Karl Marx, who I'm sure needs no further introduction to our studio audience. On my right is one of today's leading business gurus, Professor Norman Conquest, whose new book, In Reach Of Affluence has been topping the business best-seller lists for the last two months.

Conquest: Let me ask you, gentlemen, whether you intend to continue your previous careers as macro-economic experts, or whether you plan to focus on other fields now that you have, ah, re-joined us?

Keynes: Indeed I do. I had planned to work on economic history after the General Theory, but that seems a little too fast-moving at present, so I have decided to concentrate on business: microeconomics, the theory of the firm, how enterprises should be governed, that sort of thing--your own specialty really.

Marx: Jawohl, ze same for me too. Zat is vair ze big money is today. Who needs dialectical materialism ven you can haff ze real thing? Unt I haff already developed a new theory, vot I sink vill really make ze big-time. You remember my earlier Labor Theory of Value? Now I call it: The Shareholder Theory of Value.

Keynes: Since I woke up, I have been applying my formidable mind to the new fundamentals. We used to think the world was run on labor and capital, but we were wrong. What was missing? Information! You have developed these extraordinary gadgets--what do you call them?--computators? Wonderful machines. Disembodied capital!

Conquest: Mr. Keynes, Mr. Marx, this is most interesting. You are telling us, as I understand it, that our present-day view of the impact of information technology is insufficiently radical. Instead of seeing computers as an optional business tool, you seem to be saying that they represent a fundamental new constituent for Western capitalism.

Marx: Ja, dat is gut, very gut. I haff become ze great enthusiastic, how you say it, techie? hacker? Let me show you vot I haff developed to subvert zis new capitalistic paradise of yours. Is a Marxist-Leninist computer virus! Just vun byte and pouff! Say goodbye to your memories! Who needs a communist cell ven vis zis I can infiltrate ze imperialists' window-frames. Plizz? Ah no, zat is my mis-speaking again, I am meaning main-frames.

Keynes: Consider this: When I left you in 1946, the world's largest corporations and public sector enterprises had already been forced to adopt an expensive, top-heavy structure consisting of thousands of overpaid, understretched middle managers employed to move pieces of paper from their in-trays to their out-trays, occasionally glancing at their contents en route. Why? Because of what I call the Law of the Tyranny of Detail. The larger a company became, the more people were needed to absorb information from the market-place and the factory floor, to filter the messages, divine the trends of future market needs and expectations, and mobilize production resources accordingly. But by now you must have changed all that. With the advent of your amazing computers, you must have freed yourselves from this tyranny. The link from the corporate eyes to the corporate brain no longer requires an army of bureaucrats. Why, I venture to predict that you now have billion-dollar corporations with almost no head office staff at all; your captains of industry no doubt watch the heartbeat of their factories and markets on an electronic screen each day.

Conquest: This is really most interesting Mr. Keynes. As it happens, things haven't worked out that way at all. We do have computers, but we don't seem to have reduced the number of middle managers. In fact we appear to have grown rather more of them, many of whom spend their time looking after the computers themselves. Also, the technical demands of that profession are such that a considerable number of our chief executives no longer really understand what these people are doing. We seem to have lost the link between the corporate brain and the corporate limbs, and we find ourself increasingly as two societies, each alienated from the other's viewpoint and Weltanschauung.

Marx: Weltanschauung! World-view! Alienation! Vot haff I been saying for ze last 150 years? Ze worker cannot own ze product of his labor unt so he suffers alienation from his own humanity unt ze social system! So, for ze Pulitzer-style update of my block-buster, rib-tickler Das Kapital, I bring you Das Technophobe, ze penetratink revelations into ze hearts unt minds of ze downtrodden, misunderstood sandals-wearink, bearded folks who are programmink ze computers for ze coming millenium. Alienated from zair despotic chief executives, unable to own ze product of zair programmink, zey vill wreak a terrible vengeance on ze bourgeoisie. Capitalism vill be swept away by a catastrophic series of machine crashes! Ze sandalsmen vill triumph! Today Park Avenue, but tomorrow Armonk, and zen ze world is ours!

Moderator: Gentlemen, we need to interrupt this discussion momentarily for a message from our sponsors. Please stay tuned.

Robert Bittlestone is founder and chief executives of Metapraxis, a London and New York-based consulting group specializing in executive information and strategic control.
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Author:Bittlestone, Robert
Publication:Chief Executive (U.S.)
Date:Jan 1, 1992
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