Trust Yourselves, Not Your Computers

by Andy Oram
July 14, 2000

Numerous communities are trying to wrench their populations into “the information age” by introducing computer skills in the classroom. In the following dialog, a community leader who is troubled by the results talks with a therapist online.

Patient:

I have a problem with computers.

Therapist:

Tell me about the problem with computers.

Patient:

I depend on computers for things I shouldn’t.

Therapist:

Why do you think you shouldn’t?

Patient:

Well, my community is trying to lift its high school graduates’ economic status and transition welfare recipients into secure jobs by giving them basic training in simple office computer programs. We’ve sunk a lot of the educational budget and discretionary government funding into this endeavor.

Therapist:

Is there something about this endeavor that bothers you?

Patient:

It’s not working. Turns out that employers are taking those skills for granted and looking for candidates with more specialized and refined educations.

Therapist:

Earlier you were telling me you depend on computers for things you shouldn’t.

Patient:

That’s because we thought that computerizing and going on the Internet would provide a larger market for our goods and services. But it turns out that those technologies favor consolidation and streamlining. The only way to get ahead in such a game is to offer the same thing as all the other vendors but to shave a few tenths of a cent off of the costs of every transaction. So we’re reducing the quality of work and hearing increasing complaints from citizens about their narrowing opportunities in life.

Therapist:

Could it be that it’s because you’ve sunk a lot of the educational budget and discretionary government funding into this endeavor that you’re reducing the quality of work and hearing increasing complaints from citizens about their narrowing opportunities in life?

Patient:

That’s an odd idea, but it’s worth considering. Maybe we should spend less time cultivating computer skills and more time finding the unique contributions each person can make. We’ve been ignoring the treasures right in our own back yard. I’ll tell you what’s really bad: we find ourselves in conflict with every other community for an ever-shrinking toehold at the top.

Therapist:

I can tell that you don’t like that you’re in conflict with every other community for an ever-shrinking toehold at the top.

Patient:

Yes, it’s terrible! Every community is trying to be the number one warehouse supplier.

Therapist:

Maybe every community should not be trying to be the number one warehouse supplier.

Patient:

Hey, you just gave me a really powerful idea.

Therapist:

Tell me more about the really powerful idea.

Patient:

Instead of homogenizing our culture and competing on the same ground within a single global market, maybe every community should play to its own strengths. You see, we buy things as well as sell them. We can be a desireable market that the mega-corporations want to tap. It’s possible for modern technology to pinpoint customized services to each town’s geography, culture, and particular needs.

Therapist:

Tell me what it would be like for modern technology to pinpoint customized services to each town’s geography, culture, and particular needs.

Patient:

It would be great! Then we could present local experts as intermediaries between their populations and the companies trying to appeal to us. That’s a source of employment for us, and a source of valuable information to outsiders. The companies who did the best job making use of the skills of local experts would reap the most rewards. Say, you know your stuff!

Therapist:

Why should I say that I know my stuff?

Patient:

Because you’ve solved my problem! I’m going to stop expecting so much from computers, and concentrate on promoting what’s extraordinary and desirable about my town’s markets and services. Thanks.

Therapist:

Your welcome.

Patient:

Good-bye.

Therapist:

My automated ecommerce agent will send you a bill.


Andy Oram is an editor at O’Reilly Media. This article represents his views only. It was originally published in the online magazine Web Review.