A few months ago I walked into Radio Shack, looking for a short-range FM transmitter. I asked the woman behind the counter if the store sold FM transmitters.
“I don’t know,” she frowned. “The Internet’s down. I can’t access our product catalog.” (Gah!)
Weeks later, I walked into a U-Haul to rent a truck. The computers weren’t working properly, and the manager was having trouble completing my transaction. “What happens if the computers are down?” I asked. “Can you still rent me a truck?”
“Well, I can,” he said, “But that’s because I’ve been here for fifteen years and I remember how to use the forms. That kid over there–” he gestured toward the younger employee, “He doesn’t even know the paper forms exist.”
As communication technology advances, society has shifted from a thick client to a thin client model. Until recently, Radio Shack employees maintained product knowledge in their heads and on paper that they could physically access. U-Haul staff used paper and ink to rent out their trucks. Individual stores could operate independently of the central system, at least until supplies ran out. They each had to maintain up-to-date books and forms, and train employees.
More and more, information resides on remote systems, which distributed franchises and employees access in order to conduct transactions. On the one hand, this increases efficiency. Gone are the reams of preprinted contracts and forms to be manually filled out for each transaction. Employees have less to memorize, as information and procedures are built into software systems.
On the other hand, individual locations are increasingly vulnerable to network disruptions. Many businesses today rely upon the Internet in order access central databases and conduct normal transactions. Without connection, they’re just appendages cut off from the central body. Radio Shack may have FM transmitters, and U-Haul may have trucks, but without network access they have difficulty conducting business. Many businesses do not physically have the paper and supplies to support manual transactions, let alone the knowledge of manual procedures.
Do the benefits of the thin client model outweigh the costs? That depends on your perspective. From Radio Shack’s point of view, the vast savings from cutting employee training and paper supplies probably does outweigh occasional losses due to network outages. This is especially true if they create a more stable infrastructure than their competitors. Furthermore, in the thin client model, employees require less specialized knowledge, and are therefore more mobile (and expendible).
However, as a society our economic dependance on the Internet may be premature. The Internet was not designed for security, and as noisy worms have demonstrated, it can be brought to a standstill by small groups of people or even by accident. If a widespread network outage brought businesses to a halt, Radio Shack might not lose market share compared to other businesses, but society and the individuals within it would suffer.
The vulnerability of the thin client model was strikingly illustrated back in 2002, when Beth Israel Deaconess hospital “experienced one of the worst health-care IT disasters ever. Over four days, [the] network crashed repeatedly, forcing the hospital to revert to the paper patient-records system that it had abandoned years ago. Lab reports that doctors normally had in hand within 45 minutes took as long as five hours to process.” The emergency department was forced to close down and divert patients elsewhere.1
The disaster also helped hospital staff understand the benefits of the thin client system. One physician commented, â€œWhen I do this on computer, it checks for allergy complications and makes sure I prescribe the correct dosage and refill period. It prints out educational materials for the patient. I remember being scared. Forcing myself to write slowly and legibly…Without that dashboard of information Iâ€™d get from the computer, I had to walk up to patients I had treated before and ask basic questions like, What allergies do you have? Even if I thought I remembered, I didnâ€™t trust my memory.â€2
Will individuals become “dumb terminals”? Or will we simply evolve different kinds of processing capabilities? During the past few decades in the computer market, we’ve oscillated from thin clients to thick clients and back again. In the early days of computing, people used dumb terminals to access a mainframe, which stored and processed the data. Later, personal computers emerged, and each individual machine ran specialized applications and hardware.3 Nowadays, with the emergence of web-based business applications such as Google Apps and other client-server business processing systems, data is increasingly stored and processed on central systems once again.
Business processes will always mirror the technologies upon which they depend. As computers and business become increasingly intertwined, the efficiencies and vulnerabilities of our economy reflect those of our information technology. Humans have limited information storage capabilities, and leveraging centralized data storage systems helps us function as a group more efficiently.
How can we leverage the efficiencies of the thin client model, while still maintaining a robust and reliable infrastructure?
1Berinato, Scott, “All Systems Down,” April 2003, http://www.cio.com.au/index.php/id;1681249874
2Berinato, Scott, “All Systems Down,” CIO, April 2003, http://www.cio.com.au/index.php/id;1681249874
3Greenberg, Steve, “What Is Thin Client Computing?,” For the Record, July 2000, http://www.thinclient.net/technology/history-short.htm