Seven Paradoxes of The IT World

David Moschella contemplates seven paradoxes evident in IT today.

Having written nearly 200 columns for Computerworld over the past eight years, it's time for me to sign off, at least for a while. Writing regularly from atop a powerful platform such as Computerworld can get in your blood, so letting go isn't easy. But I will always be grateful to everyone at Computerworld for letting me try my hand at this, especially my numerous, and invariably helpful, editors. Most of all, I would like to thank Computerworld's readers for their countless thoughtful comments, and even their sometimes stinging critiques.

If there has been a primary focus of this column, it's been assessing the evolution of the technology industry and suggesting what it might mean for enterprise IT. Often, I have opted for an aerial perspective, with all the pros and cons such high-level vantages imply. For this final column, my colleagues and I have tried to synthesize the key forces shaping IT today. Our somewhat surprising conclusion is that we are now working through a period of heightened paradox. Here are seven worth pondering.

1. Self-image. The IT industry likes to be liked and likes to think of itself as doing good in the world by enabling generally "green" progress. But because the success of our business is so closely tied to the rise of globalization, IT is often an easy target for globalization's many discontents. That the leadership of the IT industry is so dominated by U.S.-based companies makes our business especially vulnerable to the growing anti-Americanism in many parts of the world. Increasingly, IT is both respected and resented.

2. Market power. While it seems indisputable that the Web has empowered consumers with better information and expanded choices, the fact remains that the growth of the Internet has coincided with steadily rising corporate profits. This suggests that the net of the Net has been to increase business - not consumer - market power, at least for now.

3. Spending. Although businesses are now awash in record levels of cash and rely on IT more than ever, there is little appetite for additional IT spending, at least not by the traditional IT organization. We are in a peculiar situation where IT often matters more than ever but many enterprise IT organizations remain in the corporate doghouse.

4. Complexity. Many businesses fear that they are drowning in complexity. IT often gets the blame because of its tendency to spur endless variations in products, customer segments, pricing, and sales and service options. But paradoxically, IT is also promoted as the solution because of its ability to standardize and reuse business processes and information. Tellingly, leading simplification approaches such as SOA and Web services are themselves highly complex endeavors.

5. Consumerization. In contrast to these growing thickets of enterprise complexity, consumer computing gets simpler and more powerful every day. We are rapidly moving toward another paradox, where enterprise IT is the most costly and sophisticated realm of computing but also the least modern and efficient. Increasingly, we can do things at home for free (2GB e-mail, anyone?) that companies, for all of their expert IT staffs and huge capital budgets, can't come close to matching.

6. Talent. The IT industry understandably worries about decreasing numbers of new U.S. computer science graduates. Yet despite this shortage, societal knowledge of IT is exploding, as IT permeates just about every profession - science, design, investing, entertainment - and as we all move up the IT learning curve in our own lives. The paradox is that while many people are fascinated by technology, they just don't want to study computer science and work in enterprise IT. Do they know something we don't?

7. Carr vs. Kurzweil. What could be more paradoxical than the fact that the two most influential IT books of the past few years have been Nicholas Carr's Does IT Matter? and Ray Kurzweil's The Singularity Is Near, which rejects Carr's message by predicting a dazzling future stemming from the growing intersection between IT, nanotechnology and biotechnology? One thing for sure is that they can't both be right.

Or can they? A philosopher might argue that paradoxes often result from the collision between traditional and emerging worlds, where what is true in the former can be false in the latter, and vice versa. This appears to describe today's IT environment, where the old world of complex, expensive, private enterprise infrastructure led by technicians is being challenged by a new world of standardized, inexpensive public infrastructure led by applications. During such shifts, things can easily be both true and false at the same time.

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