From the industrial revolution on, it's been tempting to create visions of an automated future. Whether it was the specter of washing machines (ubiquitous), flying cars or personal robots (not yet), there was no end of 20th Century musing on a future leisure life tended to by our own inventions.

All these visions have been faithfully recounted in books, at world expositions, science museums and Disneyland. And suddenly it all seems very quaint. Without the luxury of time to speculate on the future arriving, we're now basically watching it happen in real time.
I was listening to Ann Livermore of HP earlier today as she spoke about her company's billion-dollar project to invest in "standardized, fully-automated commercial data centers." Based on the work of HP and engineers from EDS (which HP bought barely two years ago), the new vision of managing customer workloads sounds like a series of cool, dark, secure, humming buildings.

That's what mature infrastructure tends to look like: a dial tone untended by anything more human than a security staff. It's going to save HP a lot of money, cut 9,000 jobs and become a benefit to customers in terms of readiness, cost and performance.

To call this a good or bad thing is probably irrelevant. It just is what it is. But it stuns me how quickly IT might be losing its art. There was a time to admire the ability to tune a disk array or balance a load or recover an artifact that showed not just training but insight. That time is still with us but is beginning to blur at the edges.

I don't feel the least bit curmudgeonly saying this because it's happening all over. You don't have to be a former telephone operator or steno pool veteran to see skilled jobs turning more hypothetical than repetitively literal. When it comes to things like shopping and interacting, we've been depersonalizing and automating consumption and services, for a good decade now.

Ms. Livermore said something interesting during the conference call. "As we look back over the last five to 10 years, most of the activity in the service organizations ... was focused on the geographic location of jobs and a lot on labor arbitrage. We think the next five to 10 years is all going to be about who can best use technology to automate the delivery of services and no company is in a better position that HP."

Automation befits infrastructure and services especially, there's nothing new there. But the last go around of innovation does seem to have turned things unpredictable on the IT side.

I was commiserating (at least it felt that way) with Dan Kusnetzky of The 451 group as I reviewed the HP news. Dan detailed the same vortex of automation I've been pondering. It includes industry standards that have commoditized hardware (and increasingly software); the move to virtualized environments and source-able enterprise data expertise for endless scale in cloud computing; managed services; and nearly free communication systems that increasingly extend to mobile use. It's consolidating infrastructure and distributing computing, we agreed.

"Wise management is constantly looking for areas to cut cost, in staff, in energy, in infrastructure," Kusnetzky says. "You're downsizing one function and frantically searching for people in other areas with the expertise for today and people who were very desirable 10 or 15 years ago are no longer be desirable at all because their skills no longer match the business."

There's nothing new in that either and it doesn't make sense to call change a bad thing. The contrary philosophy has long been that, in any field of endeavor, there's always room for talent and when you need it, you're going to pay for it. An expensive run in with my company's faulty online travel service just this week proves the point, even if Livermore says automating the delivery of services drives the highest quality levels as well as it saves money.

Not yet, not everywhere. But it's happening more quickly than a decade ago. It's getting harder to predict what change looks like and I can't imagine it looks like a flying car or personal robot.

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