Structuring the Information Age: Life Insurance and Technology in the Twentieth Century

Structuring the Information Age: Life Insurance and Technology in the Twentieth Century

by JoAnne Yates


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Structuring the Information Age provides insight into the largely unexplored evolution of information processing in the commercial sector and the underrated influence of corporate users in shaping the history of modern technology.

JoAnne Yates examines how life insurance firms—where good record-keeping and repeated use of massive amounts of data were crucial—adopted and shaped information processing technology through most of the twentieth century. The book analyzes this process beginning with tabulating technology, the most immediate predecessor of the computer, and continuing through the 1970s with early computers. Yates elaborates two major themes: the reciprocal influence of information technology and its use, and the influence of past practices on the adoption and use of new technologies. In the 1950s, insurance industry leaders recognized that computers would enable them to integrate processes previously handled separately, but they also understood that they would have to change their ways of working profoundly to achieve this integration. When it came to choosing equipment and applications, most companies ultimately preferred a gradual, incremental migration to an immediate and radical transformation.

In tracing this process, Yates shows that IBM's successful transition from tabulators to computers in part reflected that vendor's ability to provide large customers such as insurance companies with the necessary products to allow gradual change. In addition, this detailed industry case study helps explain information technology's so-called productivity paradox, showing that firms took roughly two decades to achieve the initial computerization and process integration that the industry set as objectives in the 1950s.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780801890864
Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press
Publication date: 03/25/2009
Series: Studies in Industry and Society
Pages: 364
Product dimensions: 5.90(w) x 8.90(h) x 1.00(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

JoAnne Yates, Deputy Dean and Distinguished Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, is the author of Control Through Communication: The Rise of System in American Management, also published by Johns Hopkins.

Table of Contents

Part I: Life Insurance in the Tabulator Era
1. Insurance at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
2. First Impressions of Tabulating, 1890–1910
3. The Push toward Printing, 1910–1924
4. Insurance Associations and the Flowering of the Tabulator Era
Part II: Life Insurance Enters the Computer Era
5. Early Engagement between Insurance and Computing
6. Insurance Adoption and Use of Early Computers
7. Incremental Migration during the 1960s and 1970s
8. Case Studies in Insurance Computing: New England Mutual Life and Aetna Life
Selected Bibliography

What People are Saying About This

Thomas P. Hughes

JoAnne Yates writes with impressive clarity about the incredibly complex origins of the information age. By focusing on the life insurance industry and by stressing both continuity and change, she provides a key to understanding the crucial relationship between technology vendors and users.

Thomas P. Hughes, author of Human-Built World

Arthur Norberg

A superb study. Yates provides a well-constructed and convincing study of the application of computer systems to business functioning, the people who brought about the change, and the specific gains in insurance from that application. An excellent contribution to the literature on business history and the history of technology.

Arthur Norberg, University of Minnesota

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