The Long March (Electronic Version)

[In progress, with limited access. I’ll clean up typos by and by!]

Through the 1980s, I worked at an STM publishing company in Manhattan. STM stands for “scientific, technical, and medical.” We produced journals and books, mostly original research. It was a young and growing company.

Well into the decade we were still using stencils to mail issues of our journals to subscribers. Each stencil was a thick, rectangular card with a screen of plastic material in the middle. On the screen was typed the subscriber’s name and address. The stencils were kept in trays, in ZIP code order, foreign ones bunched up at one end. Someone had to type a new stencil for each new subscriber. When a subscriber renewed a subscription, we had to phsyically move the person’s stencil from one year’s tray to the next. They could be quite messy if they had been inked recently for a mailing.

I knew that computerized subscription records and labels were the way of the future. Higher ups in the company also knew this and pressured our president, Alan, to computerize. He waffled for a while: He knew a publisher in the Netherlands whose company still used stencils and had even more subscribers.

Maybe Alan’s attitude wasn’t as unusual as it seems now (or even at the time). In 1982, John Scully, head of the Pepsi Cola company, declared to Apple’s Steve Jobs that “most executives found computers more trouble than they were worth.” (That’s from Steve Jobs, by Walter Isaacson). Jobs replied, “We want to change the way people use computers.” The way people use computers. What significant words.

Finally, Alan caved. Computers in our time have been like chemistry  in the late 18th and the first half of the 19th centuries–the impressive, sexy preserve of clever youg men. So our president started the process by employing his son, a physics student, for the summer. How far the young man got, I don’t know. When September came, the work was taken over by a friend of the president, a man who specialized in computer systems. As time went by, word trickled down to those of us who weren’t management (I was a supervisor in the subscription department) that all was not going well.

This was worrying as time went by because our subscriptions were handled on a calendar-year basis. If we didn’t have useful label runs for the first issues of the new year, we would have to use the previous year’s subscriber lists. We did often send the first issue to the previous year’s subscribers as an inducement to renew, but if the situation went beyond that, things would start to get expensive. And messy. New subscribers would get nothing and become increasingly impatient, then angry. Any of us involved with subscriptions knew the pattern, but now we would be dealing with hundreds of such people, not just the occasional individual.

As March approached, Alan’s friend was sure he had nailed the system down. We ran labels. I was asked to check them: No Go. The computer consultant’s test accounts were showing up, labels for nonexistent subscribers such as Jesus Christ, Hole in the Wall, Texas. Finally our manager got the newest label run for back issues. “I hope we’ve got it this time!” he said. A phone rang and I picked it up. A very angry doctor in Chicago wanted to know where his issues of a cardiology journal were. “There’s a label for you,” I reassured him. “Please give it another two weeks.” As soon as I put down the phone, I showed the label to our boss. The computer had assigned the poor doctor 68 copies of each issue. Here and there, other subscribers were to be sent absurd numbers of journals. Back to the drawing board, mercifully for the last time. Bye-bye forever to both the stencils and the president’s friend.

The manager at the receiving end of all this grief did not have his faith in computers shaken in the least. He shouldn’t have, either, although there were naive aspects to his faith. He criticized me for my own lack of faith (faith is just the right word), mistaking a skepticism about people and systems for an inability to understand what computers could do. I was also right about the company’s subsequent move to new offices, another process that had major problems but nothing to do with computers. Murphy’s Law.

Why did this old history come to mind? I was clearing out old papers the other day when I came upon a clipping from The New York Times edition of June 29, 1987. The headline: “Services Hurt by Technology: Productivity Is Declining.” The point of the article was that, while the manufacturing sector had adapted well to computers, services were in trouble. Productivity in services with technology investments had been decreasing by two-tenths of a percent annually for seven years or so. One insurance company had 100 computer systems. It took 700 people working on the problem for five years (at a cost of $100 million) to get that down to a mere 10 systems. No need to wonder why John Scully said what he did to Jobs.

The inevitable long march has continued toward a distant electronic destination, mostly to our benefit. Computer technology has not been one simple change caused by one discrete invention. Every few years a new threshold of gigabytes–gagabytes–is reached and new functions are combined into new electronic products. Complicated or not, I have often wondered why the process has taken so long to unfold.

Partly, it’s because clumsy use of these products continues. Just last year, I worked at an educational publishing house, this time on the editorial side. We were asked to mark up electronic copies of textbooks using tables and syluses. Steve Jobs forged the way on computers but had no use for styluses. Nature gave us 10 styluses of our own, he said, and we don’t need another one. In a recent discussion among copy editors on LinkedIn, a copy editor remarked that she would have to think about charging more to manually edit manuscripts. (Manuscript and manually contain the same root: Latin manus meaning “hand.” Interesting, isn’t it?) Her reasoning was that it takes more time to ensure that corrections made by hand are clear. By deliberately mimicking the old manual process, my employer last year was throwing away a major benefit of computerization in publishing.  I struggled, for example, to make clear circles around things that needed changing on the electronic pages. It took longer than a manual change and looked as if it had been done on an Etch-a-sketch. We began to use our mouses, with only slight improvement. Tablets are fine for high school kids taking notes. Our compositors in India (nice, competent people, the secret of many a U.S. publisher) marked their pages with perfect electronic circles. If they have more sense in India, they deserve to win international economic competition.

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