Simple products can have hard-won knowledge built in, that makes them easy for an unskilled person to use. Take, for example, the

twist drill bit you use for drilling 5 mm holes in the wall when you want to put up some coat hooks. Fifty years ago, drill bits were made of carbon steel that snapped easily, and blunted quickly needing regular resharpening. Can you resharpen your own twist drills? Probably not, because you never need to. Carbon steel gave way to high-speed steel, which in turn yielded to tungsten carbide tipped

tools that seldom need resharpening. And while drill bit prices have fallen, labour rates have risen, so most people now bin the blunt drill bit and buy a new one. Unless you are one of those people who still darn their socks. So, the greater the sophistication (knowledge built in) the less skill

needed to use the product. It’s true of cars with auto gear boxes and ABS braking, and of course it is true of that most sophisticated product, the computer. Yes, the computer. You don’t believe it? You can’t have used a computer in the 1980s. Then, on switching on, you were presented with just a cursor blinking in the corner of a blank screen. To get the computer to do anything, you had to type in a series of arcane system commands. Today all you need is familiarity with keyboard, mouse and toolbar at the top of the screen. You’re just a teensy bit uncertain in spelling and grammar? Not a problem – your PC will correct it. At work, when purchase orders and sales receipts are prepared, the

accounting software is quietly noting the VAT paid on purchases, and payable on sales. Then, no tax accountant is needed to prepare VAT returns for the Inland Revenue at the end of the quarter. The computer can do it automatically. In the design office, no manual drawing skills are needed – just

point-and-click, plus basic keyboard skills. Perfect lines and curves, every time. The designer can concentrate on the design and how best to present it. In the workshop, computers control the lathes and milling

machines that cut to an accuracy of a few microns (thousandths of a millimetre). No highly skilled turners and millers – just a few machine minders here and there, to load and unload the work. The machines can compensate for tool wear, and automatically change tools when necessary. And they don’t get hangovers – quality is just as perfect on Monday morning as it is during the rest of the week. Computers can handle all the routines. They take the graft out of

running a business, and remove the need for the armies of clerical and manual workers to do it. It’s like fitting a diesel engine to a trireme. You go ten times as fast, and carry ten times the payload, because you don’t need all those oarsmen.