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

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JHU Press, Jun 22, 2005 - History - 351 pages

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.


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Life Insurance in the Tabulator Era
Insurance at the Turn of the Twentieth Century
First Impressions of Tabulating 18901910
The Push toward Printing 19101924
Insurance Associations and the Flowering of the Tabulator Era
Life Insurance Enters the Computer Era
Early Engagement between Insurance and Computing
Insurance Adoption and Use of Early Computers
Incremental Migration during the 1960s and 1970s
Case Studies in Insurance Computing New England Mutual Life and Aetna Life
Selected Bibliography

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About the author (2005)

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.

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