My technology assumptions & biases

I have a few. I’m part of a generation or a class of people that grew up using technology to facilitate their lives in a way the previous generation never imagined, but I’m not so fully integrated into tech that I can’t live apart from it. It’s not yet part of the air I breathe, if you will. I see an upcoming generation raised on smartphones and tablets, and I don’t think they’ll have these techno-biases simply because they’re not living on the bleeding edge and don’t need to make any assumptions about their technology. My generation on the other hand seems obsessed with using tech to solving Big Problems, as if we somehow need to justify the existence of all these things. Of course we don’t. So without further ado, the list:

Today’s technology is better than yesterday’s technology.

This is part techno-utopianism, part confirmation bias. Lots of crappy technologies exist today that won’t exist tomorrow. A few crappy technologies persist into the future. But very few crappy technologies persist from very far in the past into the future. There’s a process of winnowing out. Thus an old technology is probably a good technology. The older it is the longer it has persisted and the longer it is likely to persist. I’m sure you can come up with a few examples. Today’s technologies may seem better only because they’re novel: Older technologies tend to be invisible until they’re replaced.

Technology is going to solve a lot of Big Problems.

This may be true. It may not. It may be that technology actually causes a lot of Big Problems, or that people trying to solve Big Problems with new technologies actually cause more Big Problems than they solve. (Take, for instance, the car; it solved a lot of huge problems like an overabundance of dead horses and horse shit in the streets, but contributes massively to climate change.) The assumption that technology will solve Big Problems isn’t an assumption that has been borne out, at least not yet. And we don’t really understand what might happen if we do solve these problems using technology.

Take, for instance, a self-driving car. One of the assumptions we have is that allowing computers to drive cars will allow a lot more cars to be on the road, since computers are better drivers than humans (a fact I don’t want to dispute). But imagine we do fit 30% more cars on the road. Imagine a traffic disruption. There will surely be far fewer traffic disruptions because computers are better drivers than humans. But when they do occur, they will cause massively more congestion than now, because the system will have been optimised that much further. What if we put this infrastructure in place only to find that commute time remains the same or gets worse, maybe even much worse? We’ll have to console ourselves with the fact that we can now do something other than driving (I would much rather read a book than drive, for instance), and purposefully forget about that other, older technology that already solves the same problem: the train.

Or take the internet. It hasn’t really solved a whole lot of Big Problems, though it has solved a lot of smaller ones that we forget about. For instance jobs like the travel agent, the journalist, and (hopefully soon) the real estate agent. Which leads me to my next point.

Technology makes us all richer or at least better off.

A lot of people have been taking stabs at why we seem to keep getting better gadgets while we get poorer. There are names for this, like The Great Stagnation. We wonder why the internet hasn’t created a whole lot of jobs like the last big technological revolution, the car, did. Instead of creating jobs, the internet has massively optimised our economy. And there seem to be less jobs to go around as machines start doing all the things that well-meaning but rather dull people used to do.

We assume that the internet (for one example) will make us richer, though there’s really no evidence for that. It has certainly made a few people very rich, but unlike the industrial revolution, the information revolution has very much concentrated wealth in the hands of a very few (inventors and the PHD holders they hire). There’s very little halo effect there. Where Rockefeller could become massively wealthy and also lift the standard of living for the millions in his employ, the headcount of Google and Apple together is something close to 125,000. That’s it. Consider Samsung Electronics (not even the entire Samsung Group), which has similar revenues to Apple but actually makes physical things and has almost three times the headcount. It’s not at all obvious that the world would be better off with more Apples and Googles than with more Samsungs.

I need the newest thing.

This is one of my personal failings. I feel like a poor person because I have a 3-year-old phone. It still works in its own way. But it feels like a dinosaur. I also have a laptop, a desktop, two tablets, and an e-reader. And yet without fail, each of those electronic devices seems old and decrepit roughly six months after I’ve bought it.

Yet every time I buy a new device I find something new to hate about that device. I become used the foibles of my old devices. And that takes a while.

But comparing the newest thing with other newest things isn’t particularly obvious. It makes more sense to compare, say, an e-reader to the thing it’s trying to replace (the book) rather than other e-readers. And it’s not patently obvious that e-readers are better than books. On an individual level they’re almost certainly not. A book with its sights, smells, and tactile sensations is an experience, and a pleasant one. It never runs out of battery, can be read at any viewing angle, and can be easily marked up (which is more important than you think!). An e-reader on the other hand fails at all these things. However on a meta level and e-reader can hold all my books, is searchable, and connects to the internet. Are these features enough to make the switch? Well, it depends on who you are and what your use case is. The answer to that question isn’t as obvious as Amazon might hope.

Or take a tablet. They’re wonderful devices for a lot of things, except when it comes to replacing really old technology. This all ties into the concept of a “paperless office”, which we’ve all been trying and failing to do for decades now. It turns out that writing on paper is one of the most useful and basic technologies around. While the tablet may (and should) kill the MP3 player, the laptop for certain uses, the CD player, the desktop for certain uses, and other things like that, it turns out that it absolutely blows at replacing really basic technologies like writing. Writing on a tablet isn’t easy. Again, it’s not obvious that if we replaced all paper in the world with a boatload of tablets we’d be better off for the substitution.

So these are my technology biases. I’m sure I have more. What are yours?

2 thoughts on “My technology assumptions & biases

  1. Pingback: Okay, Whatever. » Driverless cars, routing around damage, peer to peer communication, and unexpected vulnerabilities

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