Dividing technology into good and evil

Insight of the week: spending a few days without the technology I’m used to makes me think that spending a little more time without the technology that I’m used to could be a very good thing.

To whit — having left my phone at home, I’m spending hours just walking around Paris with nothing more exotic than my backpack…and, I must confess, my iPod, so that Charles Aznevour can provide some musical background. Damn — there goes that argument. And therein is the conundrum.

I think we all know in our hearts (for those of us with hearts that is – system administrators, you can stop reading right now) that most of the technology we work on or with is ultimately for the “good,” but we also know in our guts that some of it cannot be said to improve the human condition, even if has been widely adopted. Example? The extent to which European kids SMS/text message bloody well everything — saw two of them almost flattened by a van on the street the other day — they weren’t paying any attention to the traffic or each other, but they were intent on getting their SMS messages out.

Conclusion? Cell phone technology good most of the time, text-messaging technology bad most of the time. Good technology. Bad technology. Can we distinguish between them, or is this just another matter of perception a.k.a. it depends on where you’re standing? Let me take a run at this one: I propose an improvement-to-the-human-condition test for technologies. Those that do are by definition good, while those that dehumanize are by definition, bad.

Let’s give it a try, using Formula 1 racing as an example. Here’s a sport where the technology pendulum has swung back and forth over the last couple of years, seeming to land in a place where the technologies that add to the safety of the drivers or the experience of the race itself have been embraced, whereas those that have taken the driving “out of the hands of the drivers” have been increasingly shunned. F1 seemed to be getting to the point that telemetry, start control and active-adjustment technology was making the skill of the driver much less relevant than the big bucks computing stuff that could be thrown at the car, and there was pressure to change.

Change they did. F1 rules in the last couple of years have been embracing technology for safety and viewability, and increasingly forbidding technology that uses technology to take the driver out of the equation.

It’s getting better, but I didn’t fail to notice this weekend at the British Grand Prix that driver Felipe Massa’s car “lost time in his second stop when a software problem momentarily prevented him from engaging first gear, and the delay proved crucial.” Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think an F1 race should be won or lost by software.

On the other hand, you can still find good old-fashioned stuff on these high-tech cars too, including a “hard wooden strip known as a skid block that runs front-to-back down the middle of the underside of all cars to check that they are not being run too close to the track surface, something that is apparent if the wood is excessively worn.” And then back to France, where the TGV high-speed train is a high-tech wonder, but the Paris Metro rolls along on its rubber wheels just like it should, and a map on the wall still seems to be the best interface to figure out how to get where you’re going. In the end, I suspect that there is no easy answer here – there never is. But I suggest that the following criteria makes for a good litmus test: if we can say that what we’re doing/building is clearly additive to the human experience, it’s probably a good technology. If it’s anything that removes the human element (except insofar as our capacity to make simple errors that would cause harm to ourselves our others), it’s a bad technology.

How’s that for a non-conclusive conclusion?

Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at [email protected].

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