The Curse of the Smart Machine? Digitalisation and the Children of the Mainframe

Carsten Sørensen*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalJournal articleResearchpeer-review


We are the children of the mainframe. From the early 1950s this smart machine glowed its alluring lights, zoomed its magnetic tapes, and worked hard a couple of megabyte memory worth millions of dollars. The mainframe computer created a foundation for the field of Information Systems (IS) educating IS professionals and researching how software and organisational practices could be designed and implemented, and what effects could result from such efforts. Nearly 70 years on, since the Lyons Electronic Office began in 1951, much has happened. The radical digitalisation and transformation of organisational and public service processes challenges not only perceived wisdoms amongst IS practitioners, but also within academia. This essay challenges the IS field on its fundamental ability to address the grand challenges associated with the digital transformation of societies, organisations, as well as the lives and livelihoods of individuals. The essay argues that the IS field will need to more explicitly address its assumptions rooted in the organisational mainframe. The IS field must transcend the mainframe heritage from our inception if it wishes to escape a pathological curse rendering the field unable to deal with the powerful synthesis of: wholesale digitalisation of society; the computerised distribution of human activities; and exponential scaling of computational capabilities.

Original languageEnglish
Article number3
JournalScandinavian Journal of Information Systems
Issue number2
Pages (from-to)57-68
Number of pages12
Publication statusPublished - 2016
Externally publishedYes


  • Digital agility
  • Digital innovation
  • Grand challenges
  • Information systems research challenges

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