Exterminate - you no longer administrate

August 13, 2004

The march of machines has Valerie Atkinson contemplating the end of the administrative breed - unless it can adapt

The machines take over. There has been a recent spate of fevered activity in which my mobile phone and that of a friend have been in constant communication. The friend and I have barely exchanged a word, except to apologise for the unwarranted intrusion on the part of our phones, which seem to have developed independent lives. Some of the calls even occur in the wee small hours and involve much rustling and whispering.

There will be those who judge that it serves me right for owning a mobile in the first place; and others who will deride me for not controlling it. But the awful truth is that we have never bonded properly.

I am still a mobile virgin - canny enough to recognise that there are occasions when it will be invaluable, for example on a motionless, overheated train just north of Preston, but naive enough to have forgotten to boost the battery before setting off from Dawlish.

My experience of computers has been similar, and will have been shared by many of my administrative peer group. We were all techno-virgins when we started on the Mission of the Machines a decade or so ago. In the beginning, we were expected to undertake training so as to understand those fearsome inventions. This amounted to staring blankly at incomprehensible error messages and screaming "What have I done?" at our monitors, then throwing ourselves on the mercy of the nearest sympathetic, better-informed colleague. Cooperation was also demanded from us in the push to make our records compatible with a system that would feed statistics to Those Who Require Them.

We were given a half-day in what seemed an underground training room and the unsolicited gift of an indecipherable manual. Then we were told to get on with it. We were given regular pep talks, accompanied by dire warnings about the consequences of missing deadlines for sending details to the Great Grinder of Information.

Much has happened since those early days in front of massive screens, toes clenched, fingers crossed. We have learnt a new language. We carelessly toss around terms such as "floppies" and "hard drives", "upgrading" and "downloading"; nod nonchalantly when told "Let's try an integrated office productivity suite" or "I prefer the original troff-specific markup system". No more the rictus grin belying our bewilderment in the face of those casually superior computer experts. Gone the panic-stricken days when we were faced with incomprehensible questions such as "Have you escaped?"

Many of us are in bondage still, our necks eternally stiff, our eyes blurred, permanent pins and needles reminding us of the strain of repetition. Some of us await the next grand upgrade. To oblivion, apparently. For we are told that the data will migrate more or less automatically, presumably like the great wildebeest herds of the savannah, compelled by some primitive force to seek safer, more productive pastures.

Can the systems really recreate themselves with a bit of help from their original maker and a few willing handmaidens? If so, we administrators must look to the future for our own change of pastureland. For, unless we can make the ultimate conversion to becoming skilled technocrats, we will be truly redundant: from maidenhead to extinction, without the intervening stage of sexual enjoyment. We are already greatly diminished in number, our original skills outmoded, our successors equipped as spreadsheet engineers, database managers and web designers. They wait in the wings, preparing to step out on a stage where terms such as "stenographer", "shorthand typist" or even "secretary" are represented only in 1960s retrospectives.

Meanwhile, as our powers wane and our expertise becomes obsolete, perhaps that night-time rustle is the whisper of machines developing their own secrets of regeneration. They have already taken over. And the likes of us will not be back.

Valerie Atkinson is department administrator at York University.

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