Why are we working so hard?

When I trained IBM's ViaVoice to improve its continuous speech-recognition accuracy, I noticed that the sample texts included an unsettling sales pitch for voice-recognition technology. IBM points out that it is more convenient to use a voice-recognition product than to hire someone to take dictation because your computer is available evenings, weekends and holidays.

Wow, that's just what I need. A product that lets me fill the few remaining hours of my leisure time with work. Yes, I realise that IBM ViaVoice doesn't force you to work in your off-hours. But I'm disturbed that we seem to take it for granted that users of high technology are willing to spend their off-time working. I'm even more disturbed by the possibility that we take it for granted because it's true.

Perhaps this is somehow linked to the recent press about age discrimination. I can't speak for your work environment, but the demanding world of publishing seems to be dominated by 20- or 30-something singles and DINKs (Dual Income No Kids). These are the folks who leave work between 7pm to 9pm on good days, and tote PalmPilots, pagers and mobile phones wherever they go. These are also the folks who, by their very dominance, unwittingly create peer pressure for those who don't want to keep the same hours. If you don't know what I mean, try working in such an environment and be one of the only ones to go home at 5pm.

I'll let others hammer home the obvious contradiction in age discrimination -- that the experienced 50-year-old can sometimes do the same job in 40 hours that three inexperienced young 'uns might struggle to finish in 70. Instead, if I could name just one thing that I'd like to see happen in the world of computer technology to give us our lives back, it's this: a greater emphasis on increasing our productivity during a normal 40-hour work week and fewer gadgets to make it more convenient to work during the remaining 72 (the other 56 should be spent sleeping).

I don't mean that we should add or drop features on this or that product. I'm suggesting that we vote with our dollars to make vendors worry more about how well their products work and less about features. There are too many cases where we invent and distribute gadgets to make workers available when things go wrong. Granted, we'll never have perfectly reliable hardware and software. But I suspect we too often take it for granted that things will go wrong as often as they do.

A fellow named Mike Moffitt said it best when he answered my question, "Why do people put up with Windows nonsense?" on the InfoWorld Electric forums.

He said, "Windows is popular because people don't care how well their machines work."

If Mike is right, then this bizarre work ethic will never go away. As long as we don't care how well our machines work, we'll never solve the problem of how many hours our people work.

Speaking of ViaVoice, I recently praised all three of the most popular voice-recognition products: Lernout & Hauspie Voice Xpress, Dragon Systems NaturallySpeaking, Preferred Edition, and IBM ViaVoice 98 Executive Edition. A number of readers wrote to tell me how disappointed they were with one or another product.

To those readers who had bad experiences with these products, I offer my deepest apologies for neglecting to stress the stringent hardware requirements. These products do work well given enough hardware. But all three companies are guilty of understating their products' minimum hardware requirements. I would suggest that these companies offer a refund to anyone who has the listed minimum requirements but couldn't get their products to work with reasonable speed or accuracy.

For those who are trying continuous speech-recognition products, take note: I tested all three on a 333MHz Pentium II with 128MB of RAM. I wouldn't recommend using anything less than a 266MHz processor and 64MB of RAM. I recommend at least 96MB of RAM for Voice Xpress. I also strongly recommend that you use a high-quality headset with a noise-cancelling microphone.

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