A lesson learnt from the past.

In the space of just 30 years the computer has radically changed the pattern of our working lives. The widespread adoption of the internet in business is accelerating this process.

In the rush to get ahead with rapidly moving technology there is an ever-growing fear that the social issues of this IT revolution are being ignored.

History has a horrible habit of repeating itself and it is worth taking a look at the Industrial Revolution to see if we can learn some lessons from the past.

The introduction of the Spinning Jenny and the Combing Machine in the late 18th century allowed 20 workers to do the job of some 2,000. Outworking from home became outmoded and people were forced to travel to work each day. Towns and cities sprung up to house these people, often in extremely cramped and unsanitary conditions.

The rural way of life started to disappear. Income levels dropped and low standards of health and safety caused many casualties. Children were forced into work too and often led miserable lives. Industrialists became rich on the proceeds whilst the poor starved.

So what about the impact of today’s IT revolution and what comparisons can be made to the past?

There is little evidence today that widespread unemployment has resulted from the introduction of the computer. However, I suspect that this is likely to change over the next decade as organisations drive through cost reduction programmes. The internet, which has only recently taken off in business, will be the catalyst for this change.

In terms of the social conditions of working, ironically the web may drive through the process of outworking again. High-speed links to the internet are becoming widely available from home at affordable prices.

Office costs and travelling time can be saved if people can work remotely.

Email is increasingly replacing human communication.

The impact of this is likely to be widespread as we have developed a way of life based on people dealing with people – not computers.

Mobile technology makes it more difficult to switch off from work. A culture is developing of being available 24 hours a day seven days a week.

Working hours are increasing. Social exclusion is a growing problem as those without IT skills are becoming increasingly isolated.

It may be a bit draconian to suggest that the impact of this will be as significant as the industrial revolution.

However they should not be underestimated. Industry needs to take stock of these social issues and to ensure we build our businesses around the people who work for us – not the technology. ?:

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