Computing: A Change in Rules for the Deep Transition?

It is commonly said that we live in the digital or information age, an acknowledgement of the centrality of information and communication technologies in our daily work and private lives.  It is often believed that technologies such as the laptop computer and mobile phone come about because of the inventive genius of an individual or groups of inventors.  This belief leads to passivity with regard to innovation – we are waiting for the next big thing.  When we look closely at the development of these technologies over an extended time period, we can appreciate that they are the consequence of following a set of rules that arose from a need to address business and social problems.  In my recent paper, ‘Transition in the Rules Governing Business Data Processing During the 20th Century’, I examine the history of business data processing from the beginning of the 20th century, i.e. before the digital computer, to the present. I focus on what rules governed these activities and the implications these rules have for a deep transition to a more ecological and socially sustainable future.

Employing qualitative and quantitative data from the US, I show that two rules emerged early in the 20th century governing the collection and use business data.  One was the need to standardise the format and legibility of business records; Dickensian scribbling in ledger books was not fit for purpose in the rapidly expanding businesses of the early 20th century.  The other was a need to centralise data gathering to facilitate the financial accountability of companies to their shareholders and to government.  These two simple rules drove a search for technological solutions. Initially these were as mundane as the typewriter and the four -drawer file and the somewhat more sophisticated Hollerith punch card used to count and sort information long before it became a means of inputting data into computers.  Remarkably, these same two rules continued to dominate after World War II when digital computers began to be taken up.  With centralised computing, a new rule – demanding the full-capacity utilisation of these new computers – reinforced the earlier two rules, strengthening the role of the central office and the organisation’s central computer: the new repository of the central files of the organisation.

The ironic turn in this history occurred in the 1970s when following the rules led to a search for innovations to accelerate processes of data collection and communication with the central office and to provide users of company data with a means to access this data outside the central office.  The technologies that emerged from this search, initially the display terminal, minicomputers and client server computing, were intended to work with time shared central computing.  They destabilised the rules that had governed the system for most of the 20th century, leading to the Internet, the Cloud and the end of several occupations that had been important sources of employment, particularly for women.

The new rules, which have only been dominant in the last 20 years, are not necessarily good news for the prospect of achieving a second-deep transition to a more ecological and socially sustainable world.  The central office and computer are no longer the centrepiece of data processing and processes of data entry and processing are now widely dispersed.  However, the new rules have opened opportunities for a group of actors to dominate business data processing – the large platform companies.  In terms of social sustainability, these companies have yet to offer a marked improvement on the past and they are responsible for the disappearance of many jobs in the media, advertising, retail trade and computing service industries.

Ecologically, these companies’ use of the cloud infrastructure which they increasingly own and control, has a large footprint on energy use. This footprint is slightly mitigated by the ability to locate server farms in areas where hydropower and renewable energy are plentiful.  The rules that provided an opening for these companies may also be used to reform their operation and to enable others to join in, providing a more authentic and productive effort favouring a deep transition.

My examination shows that changes in a dominant regime may be brought about by the logic of the rules under which it operates coupled with the uneven path of technological advance.  This dynamic can be as influential in transition as incursions from niches outside the incumbent regime.  It also demonstrates that relatively simple rules can persist over a sustained time period and continue to shape future developments even when they appear to be superseded.  To forge a different path requires not only new rules, but imagination concerning how those rules might be applied to achieve the aims of transition towards social and ecological sustainability.