The future of IT, not!

The future is not what it used to be if some of the great predictions of the late 20th century are anything to go by, writes...

The future is not what it used to be if some of the great predictions of the late 20th century are anything to go by, writes Katherine Burke

Consider the paperless office. Computers were going to remove paper - but in fact e-mail has increased it, says professor David Birchall of Henley Management College. "With IT we now share more information and print and file it 'just in case'," he says.

"Once people get confident that their company has good storage and they can access it easily they won't need personal back-ups."

In addition, BT research shows black print on white paper has three times the contrast of screens, for easy reading - and people are 80% more efficient reading things which are horizontal, on a desk, rather than vertical, like a PC screen.

Home working was another great white hope - but latest government figures show only 2.5% of working people are at home, mostly part-time. "A lot of people don't like it, don't have homes to enable it and companies have concerns about managing them," Birchall says. Instead, firms have more people on the move, working occasionally from home or the office.

Videophones have just not happened, because they do not add much to phone calls, says professor Richard Scase, author of a government study, Britain Towards 2010 (URN99/1095, free on 0870-1502 500).

"If a meeting is important you'll meet in person anyway," he says. He sees instead a rise of personal digital assistants - mobile phones with PC and e-mail facilities.

Technology was supposed to replace employment and create a "leisure society". But technology has instead changed the types of jobs done, says the Institute of Employment Research at Warwick University.

Manufacturing will account for only 10% of employment by 2010 - and meanwhile more people work in Indian restaurants than in coal, steel and ship building combined, the institute says. Indeed, technology has created new jobs in entertainment, education and IT itself.

At the same time, the demands of 24-hour shopping, entertainment and online services have shattered the myth of the leisure society. UK working hours are now the longest in Europe except for Portugal.

A dwindling birth rate and labour shortages have also killed the expectation of mass early retirement, says ICL senior strategist Gill Ringland. "Over the next decade, people will be asked to retrain rather than retire," she says.

Predictions now are for huge growth in new ways of working, especially flexible hours and self-employment.

Birchall at Henley Management College sees the Web playing a great part: "The Web will help us find work which pays better than conventional employment, often with more opportunities to develop competencies through new and challenging work. New ways of working will be driven by firms working smarter and the ease with which people can find a buyer of their services."

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