9.23: From Product to Process

Another distinction which is relevant is that between process and product. In some activities, the emphasis is on the process and, in other activities, the emphasis is on the product.

The emphasis in the industrial society was on energy systems; the emphasis in the information society will be on information systems. Energy and information are very different commodities. Whereas energy conforms to the conservation principle, information conforms, on the contrary, to a proliferation principle. Too little energy; too much information. When you give away energy, you no longer have it. When you give away information, you still have it. That is why Scotsmen are so free with information. That's why I can consider myself as a Robin Hood of information taking from the rich and giving to the poor, without depriving the rich and enriching myself in the process. The important thing with respect to information is therefore not the quantity of the product but the quality of the processing. The shift from energy to information permits a shift from a psychology of scarcity to a psychology of abundance.

Value is added to a product in the information society by putting raw data into context to yield information, information in turn into context to yield knowledge, knowledge into context to yield understanding and understanding in context to yield wisdom. The lower levels of this data-wisdom hierarchy can best be done by our new electronic colleagues.

Thus, just as executives delegate more mechanical tasks to secretaries, so the secretaries, in turn, can delegate mechanical tasks to the machine. Anyone who could be replaced by a machine should be replaced by a machine. Machines, by definition, can only do mechanical things. People should not be doing mechanical things. By taking over the mechanical tasks, machines set people free for human activities. Each of us can move up this hierarchy as far as we are able to go. The office could become a more pleasant and a more productive place.

This emphasis on process over product implies an emphasis on quality over quantity. The success of an information society can not be measured in terms of Gross National Product (GNP), a measure of quantity, but only in terms of Quality of Life (QOL), a measure of quality. Advocates of GNP have prevailed over those of QOL because they can point to precise numbers as opposed to a vague concept. However, they are like the drunk, who dropped his key while fumbling at the door and went to look for it under the street-lamp because the light was better there. It is, however, not where the key is.

Advocates of QOL are beginning to cast some light around the door by focussing on quality of time, which is a precisely measurable quantity. Life can be considered as so much time. Time is the ultimate non-renewable resource. The new informatics technologies can save us from our current predicament of spending so much of our valuable "life"time doing mechanical things and salvaging only some "spare time" at the end of the day, of the week, of the year, of the life.5

5   I once saw an old, well-dressed man muttering something to a young man rushing past him on the street. He was probably just asking for the time but for a moment, I thought he said "Brother, can you spare some time?" For that moment, I had an illuminating image of someone who had squandered his valuable life-time doing mechanical things to make money and had found himself running out of time.

A person who has money left after he/she dies has obviously miscalculated and, if they have a lot of money, they have really fouled up. On the other hand, someone who dies penniless - so long as they were not penniless for too long before they died - has led a well-designed life.