She placed a box of completed questionnaires in front of me. They were to rate service quality, with a mark out of five given in six different categories.
"We need the data from these questionnaires put on the computer. We've already done some
of them; I'll show you. Unfortunately it's a really slow process."
She opened a spreadsheet. There was a row for each category and a column for each
"For each form," she said, "you look at each question and just add one to the
corresponding count on the spreadsheet."
She proceeded to demonstrate by carefully moving the mouse pointer over the 4-out-of-5 box for the first category, deleting the number 34 and typing in 35.
"How many forms are there?" I asked.
"About eight hundred, or so," she replied.
I looked up with a slightly bemused expression. "Um," I started, "wouldn't it be
quicker to, like, tally them up on a bit of paper and put them on the spreadsheet
Sometimes, when someone has a sudden realisation of how they've been doing something
really stupid without realising it, it actually makes a real sound. It sounds like
someone dropping a small pile of old, big, dusty books in a room with carpeted walls.
That was a true story. It happened to me whilst working at the local further education college over the summer. It's not the only true story like that, either; I have loads of them -- not of me making people look stupid, you understand, but of people
needlessly over-complicating really simple tasks -- and they all involve the use of
computers. Take, for another example, in a different workplace, when a colleague of mine spent
all day duelling with some CAD software he'd never used before to get a diagram of
something really simple he wanted made in the workshop. Meanwhile, I popped over, told the bloke what was wanted, he jotted down a sketch with a pencil and showed me. He
toddled over to the mill and, fifteen minutes later, it was made.
When people talk about using the right tool for the job they're usually thinking about using a knife as a screwdriver; they're thinking about improvising. Sometimes, you haven't got access to the right tool for the job and you have to make do with what you've got. What is infinitely worse, however is using a sledgehammer to
crack a nut. It's not just that it isn't the most effective use of resources. It's not even that it can be
dangerous. It's just that you've wasted all that time and energy going and getting a bloody great sledgehammer, when you could have just stamped on it.
Now, don't get me wrong, I'm no Luddite. I like computers. I'm doing a computer science degree and I spend a lot of my free time in front of my keyboard, too. But in a world of ever-increasing computerisation, we seem to be losing sight of using the right tool for the job. The problem seems to be that, in their rush to be seen as computer literate and with their vision of the paperless office, people seem to believe that the desktop PC is always the right choice, even when a pencil and a scrap of paper -- or a slate and a piece of chalk, for that matter -- would do the same job quicker, easier and often better.
Even when using the computer is a good idea, it's still a matter of using the right software. I know quite a few people who use Microsoft Word for everything: writing email, organising their photos, storing their addresses. Personally, I believe that word processors -- and particularly Word -- are never the correct tool for any job, but that's another matter.
Then, even when you've chosen your tool, you really should know how to use it. The next time someone asks you to set their video or fix their computer and then tell you you're really clever, you should say this: "No! I'm not! I just read the fucking manual! It's all in there in plain English!" Of course, it's in some people's interests to persuade everyone that computers are so easy to use nowadays, you don't need to learn and you don't need to learn anything. Well, one day, perhaps, that day will come, but it is not here yet, and I have a message: "Some things are hard. Get over it and learn."
Meanwhile, I'll still sigh every time I pick up a menu in a restaurant that's all ragged because it's lined up with spaces and not tabs. I'll still cringe every time I see an advert on a noticeboard covered with terrible, badly chosen clip-art. I'll still stare in amazement every time I see a photo or logo in my local paper that's been scaled up far beyond the limits of its resolution. Someday we'll get over the fact that desktop computers exist and start using them properly, as tools that we know how to use; and only when they are the right tool for the job.
Tuesday 30 May 2006: It's over a year since I created this writeup and longer since the event detailed in the above story which inspired it. I'm still working at the same place; I've finished university and landed myself a full-time job now.
Last week I got a phone call from someone I didn't know in the departmen I used to work in. He was adding up figures from a questionnaire.
"I'm adding up all these numbers on Excel and someone told me you did this before and invented a really quick way of doing it. Did you create some special buttons to add one to a cell or something?
"Um, no. I used a pen and paper.... click."