Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

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)