Sinclair ZX81 Creative Commons via Wikipedia. Citation. (ZX81. (2023, September 17). In Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ZX81)
For many of today’s workers, the consumerization of IT means accessing company e-mail from an iPhone or Android device. Those a little older will remember the onslaught of instant messaging, perhaps even the original push of the web. “Why,” the CIO might ask, “does an 80-year old company with established markets and customers need a website?”
Those of you with an even deeper memory of the computing industry and its history will recall the first device to broach the parapet’s of IT: the personal computer.
The first PC I brought in my very first employers walls arrived in 1982 or so in the form of a Sinclair ZX81, manufactured by Timex. There were no easily accessed comparisons of this PC and the plethora of others available on websites. One learned about the ZX81 through the geek press. My stop of choice was Byte Magazine, for which I would later write several articles. It was a computer and it was affordable.
The ZX81 was about nerdy coolness: be an early adopter and write little basic programs to help you do whatever you want to do (slightly bigger ones if you buy the 16KB add-on module). But it wasn’t just about the nerd or geek factor. It wasn’t about owning it to own it, it was about owning it to control it. Sure, we would sit around for hours and design applications for finance or manufacturing (the big thing that in 1981 was MRP the precursor to ERP) and then implement them in COBOL, all the while taking our software wares and turning most of it into ink on paper stamped down by impact band printers and their cousins. The ZX81 empowered its owners to create things that weren’t available on the minicomputer or mainframe of the time, perhaps more importantly, things that the data processing (as IT was known then) establishment didn’t see as valuable.
The consumerization of data processing back then was motivated by the same things as today’s consumerization of IT: controlling ones environment.
Controlling an environment is a big thing. Back in 1981, that didn’t mean connecting to people to play Words with Friends or to see Angry Birds high scores on Game Center, or uploading important files to Dropbox to ensure you would have access to them whenever you needed them. 1981 was indeed a simpler time, one that was about the creation of new value in the emerging digital realm.
But that isn’t that far from today’s world. We still seek to ad value, but perhaps the value is different. We were on the new horizon then, with nothing staked out, no signposts, no vision of what might come. Today we are enveloped in a digital world, unable to escape its grasp, and we see our workplaces as the progenitors of the worst versions of those digital enclosures, constraining the degrees of freedom that define how we relate to the world. And like any person caged-in by circumstances, we seek to circumvent the rules, either physical or philosophical, that make up our prisons.
So we bring with us our devices and our games, our communications tools and our stealthy documentary gadgets to capturing voice and sound, notes of remembrance and notes of insight. We own our data and we ensure that it lives in places other than on corporate servers or approved cloud services where IT managers, with a single click, can eradicate our digital worlds in the name of security or legal protection. We use our devices and the bits that stream from them, to create a legacy, perhaps only a personal one, of our lives formed in mundane tasks and profound insights. We seek to remain individuals in a world that often shouts its contempt for individuals.
And the world provides: ways to entertain, ways to encrypt and ways to connect. The consumerization of IT is nothing new, and it cannot be controlled. We must, as I tell my clients, work with the world we are given, not with the world we want. So rather than concentrate on productivity and control, we should start seeking ways to tap into the subversive side of technology and find in our people the power of innovation they find in each other.