Max Frisch, a twentieth-century Swiss writer, once defined technology as “…the knack of so arranging the world that we need not experience it.”
When I first read what Max said in a shabby, second-hand book of quotes in a shabby little second-hand bookstore in Washington D.C., I dismissed him. Max was crazy, I thought. As a technologist, I took offense at what he had to say. But for some reason, I did borrow a pencil and write his words down.
I was ready to dismiss those words out of hand, primarily because of the technologies I had benefited from in the previous 24 hours. I’m pretty sure that when Max said what he said 100 years ago, he wasn’t stepping out of the oppressive early fall heat of Washington D.C. into an air-conditioned (a technology that arranges the oppressive and humid world so that we need not experience it – so there) train, and I’m sure Max would have hesitated to open his mouth if he had. Let’s hear it for air conditioning and fast trains.
And then I picked up the paper, and what Max said came back to me: I was reading something in the Washington Post that said a “huge” percentage of Washingtonians spend more than 10 hours a week online outside of work. Online. Outside of work. Doing what? Avoiding real people and the real world? Maybe Max had something there after all.
Back to the train – as the Maryland countryside flew by, I saw a billboard for a company that sells vacuum-cleaner bags. Really. And the billboard said they had an online consumer support site. I wonder how many hits that site gets? Talk about avoiding the real world.
And then I got a call from a friend, who I last saw in July during the extended excuse for a party that we in the West call the Calgary Stampede. He brought back memories of this year’s particularly hot and boisterous events, and what turned out to be a ridiculously common site during the 10 days: No matter where you went, no matter how loud the music or how riotous the crowd, it seemed that every second person was barking into their cell phones above the general drunkenness.
I had to wonder: why was everyone gathering in a place where they seemed to want to be in touch with someone else who was somewhere else? Technology sometimes makes for too many ways to avoid the real world of the here and now, methinks.
At the root of the thing (and here’s where we finally get relevant to the work we do) it goes to the whole question of messing with something that need not be messed with. Like standard, vanilla, non-customized, out-of-the-box software applications.
I can’t tell you how often I’ve heard people try to justify modifications to a package, or worse yet, the writing of a custom application, because “in our department/company/world, we do things differently.”
Uh huh. And that alone justifies the extraordinary cost and effort necessary to create and support the thing?
Fact is, the world for most applications, the world we “need not experience” is much more standard than we think. We’d never consider writing a custom spreadsheet or word-processing package, would we? For better or worse, we buy what Microsoft puts out there.
Same thing is true of most applications, in fact. General ledger? Accounts payable? If we’re doing things differently than others are in our industry, even others not in our industry, we’d better be able to explain why. “Because we’re different” doesn’t cut it.
In my experience, the best organizations realize which of their applications are standard and non-competitive (and that would be most of them), and try to manage them like the commodities that they are – making them easy to access, cheap to acquire and inexpensive to maintain.
Those same smart folks also recognize the few places where applications give them a competitive advantage, and pour energy, money and resources into them accordingly.
Because we’re technologists at heart, we seem to think that the technologies we have allow us to rearrange the world around us. I’m with Max on this one – just because we can doesn’t necessarily mean that we should.
Hanley is an IS professional in Calgary. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org