Time-saving versus work-inducing software

At a glance, office software like Word, PowerPoint or Excel, are great time savers. Nobody would want to go back to the era before Word Processors?

Unfortunately, I believe that this same software bears part of the blame for our long working hours:

  • Word processors entice people to create too many documents. Microsoft Word is the king of corporate busy work. Wherever I have worked, people got busy crafting all sort of useless internal reports or plans. And, of course, reports must be properly formatted with a title page and an index, just in case someone might print it. And updating old documents can be messy: it almost invariably involves formatting bugs. I am tired of having to check that the font is the same throughout the document. Why can’t machines format documents automatically in a consistent manner? Of course, they can and they have been doing it since the seventies (hint: DocBook, LaTeX, web content management systems like blogs).
  • Spreadsheet software is great for prototyping ideas. If I have half an hour to do an analysis, it is hard to beat Excel. There is a catch however: it is difficult to reuse old spreadsheets with new data. Thus, in most organizations, there is a multiplication of spreadsheets. And spreadsheets tend to grow to include many pages, all poorly documented and fragile. Code reuse is possible, but difficult in Excel. Yet there are perfectly good frameworks for data processing such as R. They are orders of magnitude more powerful and less work intensive.
  • PowerPoint is responsible for 90% of the bad business presentations. Have you noticed that Bill Gates frequently give talks without PowerPoint? In fact, he became a much better speaker since he stopped using so many silly slides. But what is worse is that people spend a lot of time on these slides instead of preparing good talks. And remember: not giving a talk is often the best option.

Microsoft is not the sole company to blame. In universities, most assignments and exams are still marked by hand whereas we have had the technology to automate 90% of the marking for years!

Happily, I find that some software really does save labor:

  • Most web content management systems let the author write and publish efficiently. Maintaining this blog is cost-effective: with only a few hours of work every week, I can reach thousands. I spend almost no time on repetitive tasks.
  • Scripting has gotten a lot better in the last 20 years, and it is very useful. I get a lot of my data processing done in Python. My only regret is that so few people learn scripting languages.
  • Obviously, Wikipedia is amazing at saving time.
  • With Doodle, scheduling meetings is an order of magnitude faster than with Microsoft Outlook.
  • Cell phones are work-inducing, obviously. However, I conjecture that tablet-based computing is time-saving. People write shorter comments and emails. They tend to start fewer documents. Users of an iPad will spend more time reading than writing. Isn’t it about time that we take some time off to read instead of producing more than others can consume?

What is the underlying thread? Time-saving software tends to be produced by less civilized people.  Software written by large corporations will probably be work-inducing.

Further reading: Of Lisp Macros and Washing Machines (via Hosh Hsiao) and Conway’s law (via John D. Cook)

12 thoughts on “Time-saving versus work-inducing software”

  1. @Regehr

    Cut and paste is a good example of a work-inducing technology. At first it looks like a great idea: text reuse! But it is the wrong kind of reuse. Once you start copying and pasting, there is no end to it. It cannot be automated and it requires much scrutiny.

  2. Recently I reviewed some grant proposals. A lot of the problems I saw (subsections that make no sense in context, and similar) were enabled by cut-and-paste.

  3. Re: Spreadsheets.

    Have you looked at http://www.resolversystems.com/ ?

    I believe spreadsheets are potentially very much forces for good (ie. labour saving) but customers have tended to select against the powerful features (remember Lotus Improv?)

    I remember reading some time ago that Microsoft did some research and found most people used Excel to make lists not do calculations, and have been emphasising the list-making and de-emphasising the calculating ever since. (It’s why I say that Excel contains 90% of the world’s “semi-structured data”).

    That means they have little incentive to beef up the programming side of Excel and lots of incentives to add the kind of thing that makes the spreadsheet a worse alternative to a relational database.

  4. Agree 100% about Excel. It’s great because it gets a B- grade at doing everything – you can generally produce/template a light-weight report from raw data to deliverable in a single document.

    Re: stats packages – I’ve never seen clients and coworkers lose interest faster than when the results are in courier new (I work in marketing). Am working on this!

    R is great. For my money though, one of the best purchases I’ve ever made was Stata MP.

    Oh and funny thing about Python – I feel so strongly about how awesome it is I’ve caught myself using it in situations where other languages were clearly better. From an efficiency standpoint it makes me wonder where the cutoff is for adapting already-acquired skills vs. developing entirely new ones.

    My instinct would be – learn new skills for large projects, but then of course, large projects are more involved so you would have to learn potentially too much to make it viable. And small projects frequently don’t require the gains that could be derived from using the most appropriate tools (a la prototyping in Excel). Huh.

  5. I was reminded of this post last night as I was called on to help a friend whose Mac was crashing due to an equation editor inconsistency in Word. All I could think of was that in the seven years since completely switching over to LaTeX, I’ve never had to deal with a ridiculous issue like that. A lot of people I speak with dismiss LaTeX for the learning curve (there is not widespread adoption in my field yet), but this is of course nonsense — you could learn LaTeX twenty times over in the time those folks have spent wrangling with intractable formatting bugs in Word.

  6. Yes, I have painfully, but finally learned not to use Word/Excel for anything serious. Latex + R makes a perfect combination.

    The funny and deplorable fact about power-point-like presentations is that people expect them. I once prepared a talk, to describe what I was doing for 3 years. I prepared 3-4 slides just to give an idea. Everything else was delivered orally and rather compactly. I was afraid to bore people. On the contrary, they felt insulted and complained that I did not tell them anything. Therefore, I had to prepare a longer and more boring talk.

  7. PS: Latex is pretty easy. I would not say that the learning curve is very steep. However, if you have to seriously edit a document, move sections and illustrations around, you’ll be totally fucked up with Microsoft Word. Not to mention that Word documents look outright ugly. I have heard that some people can cook them well so that they look prettier, but to me that is an urban legend!

  8. Yes. And then we wonder why we work so hard all the time for so little pay.</i.

    It's not really little. Compare ourselves with Chinese workers, for instance. 🙂 However, I agree with you on the main point: big companies are not especially efficient. In addition, there is always politics.

  9. One further point I’ve noticed: as you say, a lot of people can produce documents. Unfortunately, they have no understanding of what a computer could do and, more importantly, of what software in general can do (if properly designed). This leads to an interesting behaviour, i.e. a word processor is used as a typewriter: documents are written, printed, handed over to the person who needs them who in turn has to take them (in paper) to some other office which will look at the document and either (a) file it, or (b) manually insert the data contained into their own software.
    Three people are doing something that could be easily automated: send data ‘x’ to office ‘y’ (digitally signed). This is particularly true in countries where bureaucracy is still working like in the 19th centrury (e.g. Italy).

    Furthermore, this is the tip of the iceberg of a bigger problem: systems are (still) not designed for interoperability. We resort to the exchange of word documents where a UTF string, or some binary data representation would do the sam. As long as we teach students to use the computer as a word processor we should not expect anything better to happen.

  10. Python and excel* – loving python so much, I happened to write fancy scripts for data manipulation, saving it to csv (or tsv) format in order to be able to have it nicely presented in excel. Then upon opening the output in excel i usually realized that all the data manipulation could have been done within the excel, saving a lot of time…

    *open office/google spreadsheet

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