Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Why Nothing Works Anymore

I'm a technologist and I spend a fair amount of time every day thinking about, researching, or testing new applications of technology.

So when I say you don't need certain technologies, or can do with less, it's not because I'm out of touch, certainly, or don't know the arguments for applications of tech, or because I'm biased for or against tech: I'm not.

If I do have a tech bias, its toward utility, or utility vs today's cost, downstream impacts, tomorrow's maintenance, etc.

That said, The Atlantic published an article in 2017 about something that's been on my mind a lot lately: do we really need to computerize everything?

Do we need an Internet of Things, and if so, how broadly should we apply the technology?

Do you really need your refrigerator to order replacement cheese for you?

Do public facilities need automated flushing, and is the solution causing different problems that effectively obviate the rationale for the original solution?

We've long been in the because we can phases of technology, where tech is incorporated into products for the primary purpose of appearing to be competitive, cutting edge, or, more rarely, useful. The author posits (without citation of stats):
"Toilets flush three times instead of one. Faucets open at full-blast. Towel dispensers mete out papers so miserly that people take more than they need. Instead of saving resources, these apparatuses mostly save labor and management costs."
The answer, of course, is no, we don't need to technologize everything, but we will, because tech companies and the media that covers them will it to be so:
"Technology’s role has begun to shift, from serving human users to pushing them out of the way so that the technologized world can service its own ends. And so, with increasing frequency, technology will exist not to serve human goals, but to facilitate its own expansion"
So how much is enough?

I just got off a call with a company I'm helping, and like all of us they're experiencing a lot of technological noise from consultants, social media sites, ad networks, Google, and their own, un-curated digital creations in the form of products, product information, and a few dozen important marketing phrases.

What is important? It's sometimes very hard to understand what's important once the precarious success you've developed but don't quite understand feels like it's dependent on everything you've tried to far, when it's all so interconnected. You're too close to it when you're in it, and it's a dark, murky mess.

We design our lives this way, we choose the murkiness, slowly, over time.

I depend on my phone because I've designed my world that way, not because the dependency is also necessary. Connectivity is intrinsic to my way of working, because I can, not because it's the only way to accomplish what I need to.

So how do we clean it up? How do we turn tech back into a tool to advance our needs rather than to merely accelerate its primacy?

Start over, start clean. Start with the core, without technical dependency, then build back up.

Take the sensors off the toilets and faucets--go back to what worked for hundreds of years. Cut extraneous language from your website. Narrow your messages to a single core message, supported by three or four tightly related and slightly expansive phrases that spark thoughts of benefits.

Get a flip phone. Leave the smartphone or tablet in your bag, or at home. How many emails need immediate responses? Not that many. Pull the smartphone out for the one emergency email, but otherwise leave it. Delete apps. Reduce, reduce, reduce, eliminate.

I'm designing a few versions of a new something, and I ask a few critical questions about each feature: do we really need it, how much does it cost, how does it increase complexity (each feature creates complexity and dependencies), and can we do without it? Is it tech for tech's sake?

I can't say I'm always on the side of what makes the most sense, because like most people I can buy into the arguments about better, faster, cheaper, easier to maintain, focus more on your work and less on the crap because the innovation saves us time and money.

But it's not always the case, and sometimes it feels like we just need to stop.

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