Technology Disrupts Before It Empowers

I have been fascinated with technology my entire life. From my first computer consulting gig in the second grade to now running Astek, I have been constantly fascinated by technology’s potential to empower, democratize, inspire, motivate, revolutionize, and capitalize every industry and individual it touches. I’ve been equally interested in the tendency for technology’s infancy state to disrupt before it does any of those positive things.

And even as I write this I find myself describing technology as “doing” these things, but of course technology is simply a tool, capable of nothing without human intervention. That’s how we tend to talk about technology, as though it has a mind of its own.

As Arthur C. Clarke wrote, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” When technology is new, people often indeed view it as magic because their understanding of the mechanics is so limited. This naive state is important, because it tells us how people use the technology perhaps without understanding the way it was designed to be used. This can lead to accidental innovation in the form of byproducts or creative usage.

My favorite contemporary view comes from author Clay Shirky, who said, “Curiously, once the technology gets boring, the social effects get interesting.”

I agree with Shirky that only when technology becomes ubiquitous do we favor talking about the social benefits that integrated technology delivers rather than the features that make us geek out. Only then do the most interesting non-technological social effects of a technology begin to emerge.

Twitter is a perfect example of possibility+conflict in my life. The mechanical ideology of Twitter is incredibly simple compared to other social or information networks. But clearly it is no trivial task to keep all those billions of tweets going.

As someone who has been on Twitter for more than four years and has yet to send 1,000 tweets, my mantra has remained consistent: I speak when I have something to say. I find Twitter to be a highly disruptive medium as I’d typically rather be talking with someone face to face than online under any circumstances.

Yet at the same time, I love the wide-spread potential for Twitter and I see it becoming more refined and less disruptive. Twitter’s own iPhone app was historically at the bottom of the list of Twitter apps until version 4.0. To me, this one changed everything. They really finally figured out how to make it easy to spend five minutes on Twitter and get the most value out of it rather than previous apps which we much more focused on cramming features in than streamlining one’s Twitter life.

One of the greatest disruptions of mobile technology is the flaky nature of Internet connections. The U.S. suffers behind some third world countries since we still have to maintain so much copper infrastructure. There are some creative solutions out there to boost reception, but until this “just works” it will continue to disrupt by making people stare at their phones for a minute or more waiting for tasks that should have taken a few seconds to process.

The social network I most actively participate with is Foursquare, where the basic action of “checking in” to a place should just take a few seconds. However, given the realities of mobile Internet reliability and my lack of desire to paint an antenna on a tree wherever I am, Foursquare does indeed end up disrupting my life, especially my meals, more than I’d like. It’s worth exploring, but we have a long way to go before everyone is on board.

I’m always enchanted to meet someone who is not yet on Facebook or has yet to delve into one the other daily social phenomenons. People the geeks may view as luddites who haven’t yet seen the light to me represent a sort of purity that makes me wonder if they are still appreciating parts of life that the digital haze has diffused for the rest of us. We’re going through something necessary for humanity’s progress, where increased connectivity will solve big world problems. But the current value of it all currently leaves room for doubt.

Perhaps Einstein got it right in 1941 with a bit more brutal view of the impact of technology, saying, “Technological change is like an axe in the hands of a pathological criminal.”

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