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Trapped in the Net

Trapped in the Net: The Unanticipated Consequences of Computerization

Gene I. Rochlin
Copyright Date: 1997
Pages: 310
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  • Book Info
    Trapped in the Net
    Book Description:

    Voice mail. E-mail. Bar codes. Desktops. Laptops. Networks. The Web. In this exciting book, Gene Rochlin takes a closer look at how these familiar and pervasive productions of computerization have become embedded in all our lives, forcing us to narrow the scope of our choices, our modes of control, and our experiences with the real world. Drawing on fascinating narratives from fields that range from military command, air traffic control, and international fund transfers to library cataloging and supermarket checkouts, Rochlin shows that we are rapidly making irreversible and at times harmful changes in our business, social, and personal lives to comply with the formalities and restrictions of information systems.

    The threat is not the direct one once framed by the idea of insane robots or runaway mainframes usurping human functions for their own purposes, but the gradual loss of control over hardware, software, and function through networks of interconnection and dependence. What Rochlin calls the computer trap has four parts: the lure, the snare, the costs, and the long-term consequences. The lure is obvious: the promise of ever more powerful and adaptable tools with simpler and more human-centered interfaces. The snare is what usually ensues. Once heavily invested in the use of computers to perform central tasks, organizations and individuals alike are committed to new capacities and potentials, whether they eventually find them rewarding or not. The varied costs include a dependency on the manufacturers of hardware and software--and a seemingly pathological scramble to keep up with an incredible rate of sometimes unnecessary technological change. Finally, a lack of redundancy and an incredible speed of response make human intervention or control difficult at best when (and not if) something goes wrong. As Rochlin points out, this is particularly true for those systems whose interconnections and mechanisms are so deeply concealed in the computers that no human being fully understands them.

    The complete text ofTrapped in the Netis available online at

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2226-3
    Subjects: Technology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-x)
  3. Preface
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xv-2)
  5. 1. Introduction
    (pp. 3-14)

    This morning I got a call from a computer. The local telephone company had just repaired a defective line, and its computer was calling me to ask how satisfied I had been with the service. Somewhat amused by the role reversal, I dutifully punched the buttons of my touch-tone phone when requested, evaluating the promptness, efficiency, and quality of the work done. Only after I hung up did I realize that the reversal of roles had only been symbolic. It didn’t matter whether I called the computer or it called me. In either case, I have learned to adapt my...

  6. 2. Autogamous Technology
    (pp. 15-34)

    In his learned and lucid book,Autonomous Technology, Langdon Winner argues that the historical theme of technology-out-of-control misplaces and disguises human responsibility for outcomes by assigning to artifacts instead of people the processes of volition and choice.¹ The social and institutional processes that have shaped and controlled the introduction of computers into a wide range of social and organizational settings are no more autonomous than any other. However, they do seem increasingly to be driven not by the needs and demands of users, or of society at large, but by an internal dynamic that originates in and is sustained by...

  7. 3. Networks of Connectivity: Webs of Dependence
    (pp. 35-50)

    The installation and networking by research libraries of computerized catalogs and their associated powerful search and retrieval tools has been promoted by librarians, and by library schools, as a user-empowering technology. Instead of having to go to the library and physically search the drawers of card files, or wander the stacks and shelves, anyone needing to find an item can work in their office, or at their home, at their own convenience and on their own schedule. The ability to search by keyword, by title, or by subject has no parallel in the linear world of 3 X 5 cards...

  8. 4. Taylorism Redux?
    (pp. 51-73)

    The previous chapters pointed out the degree to which desktop electronic computers and widespread interconnection by local as well as national and global networks have become accepted as constitutive elements of modern life. Many of the short-term consequences and problems are well known and widely discussed. But this process has been under way for only a short while, and there is little basis for systematic understanding of the nature and implications of the long-term changes that will ensue as computers and networks begin to transform the structure as well as the practice of social, economic, and political life. Such long-term...

  9. 5. Computer Trading
    (pp. 74-90)

    Why in London indeed? Possibly because of the myth of the City as the place where transactions take place, and the idea that markets are made real and physical rather than enacted by his embodied presence. Before 1986, stocks in London traded on the floor of the London Stock Exchange, in a controlled and structured chaos of shouting, shoving, sweating, and dealing, as they had since the nineteenth century. But in October 1986, electronic trading came to the City of London with a “Big Bang.” After several months of soul-searching and critical examination, operations on the floor were converted to...

  10. 6. Jacking into the Market
    (pp. 91-107)

    In 1992, Barings P.L.C., a small, highly regarded British banking firm, hired one Nicholas W. Leeson, installing him in its small office in Singapore. Over the next few years, Mr. Leeson made a reputation as an expert trader over the global network, using his computer, and his computer programs, to make small but significant profits on tiny differences between the prices of financial instruments in Japan and in Singapore.¹ In January 1995, for reasons still not fully understood, Mr. Leeson abandoned the strategy of matching the prices of derivatives and began trading in them directly, making large purchases of futures...

  11. 7. Expert Operators and Critical Tasks
    (pp. 108-130)

    Over the past few years, my colleagues and I have studied the operation of aircraft carrier flight operations, nuclear power plants, air traffic control centers, and other complex, potentially hazardous advanced technologies, using interviews and field observations to find out what it is that makes some operations reliable and others not.¹ Out of this research has emerged the beginning of a better language for understanding the difference between these complex, critical, and reliability-demanding operations and more mundane and ordinary ones with which most of us have direct experience.

    Every group of operators we interviewed has developed a specialized language that...

  12. 8. Smart Weapons, Smart Soldiers
    (pp. 131-149)

    In the early days of smart weapons, military officers were fond of saying that the new weapons were “designed by geniuses to be operated by idiots.” The argument, made by military officers as well as in the Pentagon, was that there was a difference between a complex weapon and a sophisticated one—if all you must do to make them work is press a button, they are not complex, they are sophisticated.¹ This attitude was not created by the military; it simply mirrors in the military realm the arguments made over automation, efficiency, and deskilling in the workplace. Given that...

  13. 9. Unfriendly Fire
    (pp. 150-168)

    In 1868, the U.S. Navy launched theWampanoag, the most advanced naval weapon of her time.¹ Steam-powered, propeller-driven, with a hull designed primarily for speed, she was heavily armed with ten 8-inch rifled guns, a 60-pounder, two 100-pounders, and four howitzers. During her trials she maintained speeds of over sixteen knots for over twenty-four hours in seas that were at times heavy. There was no warship afloat that could match her, and there would not be for nearly twenty years thereafter.

    TheWampanoagdemonstrated her seaworthiness and efficiency in a year of service, during which time her officers and crew...

  14. 10. The Logistics of Techno-War
    (pp. 169-187)

    Despite its hyperbole, the preceding statement by General McPeak, then chief of staff of the U.S. Air Force, represented the dominant politico-military view of the U.S. performance in the 1991 Gulf War that drove the Iraqi military out of Kuwait.¹ The minority view that it was logistics and preparation rather than technology that was responsible for the quick victory was perhaps best expressed at the time by Lawrence Korb: “If you’ve got enough time, American logistics will always overwhelm you. . . . You would not be writing the same story if the war had come in August or September.”²...

  15. 11. C³I in Cyberspace
    (pp. 188-209)

    From Agamemnon before the walls of Troy to General Schwarzkopf at the border of Iraq, military commanders have had to deal not only with leadership, authority, strategy, morale, and tactics, but the more down-to-earth details of information, communication, physical movement, and supply. Although particular attention is always paid to the unique qualities of leadership and inspiration that make great commanders, social historians are always careful to emphasize as well those qualities needed to organize, supply, and direct an army in the particular social and economic environment of the times.¹

    Because military organizations bear many similarities to civil ones in the...

  16. 12. Invisible Idiots
    (pp. 210-218)

    The recent literature on the growing use of computers has drawn many critical studies of the relationship between the individual and the newly reconstructed society. Sherry Turkle has studied the transformative effect on human personality and culture by immersion in the new world of interactive computer technology.¹ Howard Rheingold has not only extolled the prospects of the new virtual community, but warned of the darker implications of immersion in virtual trivialities and the prospect of intrusive monitoring and the loss of privacy.² And Jeremy Rifkin has extended the traditional arguments over labor and the loss of jobs and skills into...

  17. Notes
    (pp. 219-264)
  18. Bibliography
    (pp. 265-284)
  19. Index
    (pp. 285-293)