Too Much Technology?
On a cool sodden day before Thanksgiving 2011 I interviewed Eric Brende, a noted technology thinker and writer in the historic suburb of Soulard in south St. Louis, Missouri. Eric is most noted for his book “Better Off Flipping The Switch on Technology”. The book is a documentary of Eric's quest to find the right blend of technology in his life.
His views can be contrary to the technological establishment. He contends that we've become too reliant on technology and need to get back to the right balance. Some examples he noted during my interview with him:
Vehicular Transportation vs Walking: We used to walk almost everywhere we went. Through walking we forged relationships with neighbors, received beneficial exercise, and exposure to natural air, elements. Vehicular transport ripped all that apart and now we have to dedicate time to exercise, meet with people, and go outside. What used to be woven into the fabric of life is now compartmentalized and disconnected.
Craftsmanship vs Organized Productive Labor: Through craftsmanship we received the benefits of exercise, the sense of accomplishment of creating something, and the intellectual stimulus associated with solving problems. Factories and office cubicles have reduced human ingenuity, driven up incidences of cancer and heart disease, and made problem solving a set of routines or patterns to follow.
Computers vs Reality: We're reinventing the real. It already exists. Take Facebook for example. We already have social networks, but by abstracting it to a computer we distance ourselves from ourselves. We're not growing our network...we're atrophying our most fundamental human skill: communication.
As we had lunch, the rain drizzled near us and I launched into my questions.
InfoQ: So Eric, since I read your book back in 2007, I've been wondering...have you found the right blend of technology in your life?
Eric: I have for my life. I don't know about anyone else or the world in general. People often think I'm anti-technology. But that's not the case. I just believe it can be overused, over applied and we need to have a better framework for making technology decisions. The Amish are far more advanced at this than we are. That's why I started there. They have a great system for making technology decisions. They really think it over and consider all the implications of adopting a technology. We don't do that. We live in a culture that says new technology is always good. But it causes all these problems for us, tears apart our cities, and re-arranges our society. We live around our technology and for it.
InfoQ: Eric our InfoQ readers come from a software and computer background. Applying your thinking to this domain...what would say to them? Are software and computers overused? What would you say to the CIOs and CTOs of the world?
Eric: I think so. As I mentioned to you when we first sat down....computers are just reinventing the real. I don't mean there isn't any use for them. Everything is useful in a given context. As far as what I would say to a say CIO? I would say.....go back to the drawing board! Start over. Specifically, I'd think every company should have a framework for technology adoption, rules.
InfoQ: What would that framework look like?
Time should be spent making an inventory of technology needs for your company. It should truly be about what the company needs. Not about what competitors are doing or what's the next big thing in the market.
Minimize the use of technology. There's always costs to adopting technology and we don't take the time to see them up front. But after its been adopted it's too hard to remove. See the benefits of not adopting the technology in parallel with the benefits for adoption. Fulfillment in the workplace is something that should be considered a benefit.
Don't duplicate capability. If you have something that already functionally works...then why replace it? Again this goes back to seeing all the costs and benefits....not just the monetary ones.
InfoQ: We commonly think of innovation as something that is centered around technology. But your research seems to indicate that innovation outside of technology needs to catch up. What are your thoughts on that?
Eric: Yes. That's right. Our technology has advanced faster than we've been able to adapt to it. What needs innovating right now isn't our tools. It's us. We need to innovate ourselves. Our technology has taken our old social, and biological systems for granted and they are breaking down. They need help, but we don't see the problem. Look at healthcare. Healthcare companies today are solving the medical problems that our technological society has created. Diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. The cure isn't more technology and medicine...the cure is that these people need a reason to live.
InfoQ: Where has technology succeeded? Where has it failed?
Eric: Where has it succeeded....well I think about Twitter. I don't tweet, but when I heard about the Arab Spring and how Twitter helped spread those ideas...that's an example where maybe technology was beneficial. But at the same token....China monitors all communication like that. Tweets, emails etc. So there's a case where technology is being used just to spy on and control people. Technology in context. Another good example would be the atom bomb. It's implications as a weapon are horrible. But if we ever had an asteroid headed for the earth...it would be the only thing that could stop, redirect it's course.So you can see how having that framework for technology decisions comes into play. We should know all the costs, benefits and reasons for a technology decision. Just as Maslow had a hierarchy of needs....we need a hierarchy of technology needs. At the bottom would be the screwdriver or hammer. It's a basic tool that we should use a lot. But at the the top might be the computer and perhaps we use those too much now.
As our lunch and interview ended we parted ways. He on his bicycle. Me, in my car. I looked down at my Android phone and saw I had 6 emails and 2 voice mails. I thought to myself: How is this technology impacting my life?
Life without much science
I strongly agree that the current day's technologies are silently ripping apart our peace. We still/never know where and when to stop.
Recently, I too had started dreaming about a 'life without much science' - a struggle between Instinct Vs Sixth sense :-)
We should focus more on technology that actually has tangible benefits - longer and healthier life, lesser deaths, lesser crime, negating bad effects of already introduced technology (lke counter-acting pollution) etc. Besides, a lot of tools today just need innovation in how they are applied to solve existing problems - basically matching solutions to problems.
Technology needs to improve to the point where it is almost imperceptible
Perhaps the pace of change is too great for us to evolve quickly enough to adapt well. However I am confident that nature is the great optimizer and we will find the right balance in time (my teenage child is sick of facebook! - never thought that would happen).
There is a psycho-social aspect (technology for being 'cool') that we can't ignore either.
Meanwhile, I have started to play with the Kinect sensor and SDK - which just may be the right direction for technology...