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I.T., the “Swamp” and dangerous gadgets
By H. Scott Shore
We call it Information Technology or I.T. Note that we tend to capitalize the “t” in Technology. Thus, do we reify and deify software, hardware, and the entire “digital universe.” It is precisely this nearly universal devotion to a set of distinct but integrated fields of study that is creating an intellectual and moral crisis in modern society. It might be easy to dismiss my outlook as the rantings of a curmudgeon against newfangled gadgets, complicated problems and as Mark Twain once said, “all the modern inconveniences.” The truth is that being a curmudgeon does not ipso facto make my concerns any less real. I have looked at IT and found it wanting. IT is not worthy of our devotion. We should view new technologies without sentiment and with cold-eyed utilitarian cost-benefit analysis. So sorry for throwing a wet blanket on all those computers, apps, platforms, mobile devices and algorithm makers!
I did not write this to pointing out the shortcomings of IT. My greater purpose is to suggest that our digital universe has tremendous potential to improve the lot of humanity. I call the geniuses of this “mysterious” cult to deliver on the promise of these fields of research and development. Right now, IT is roughly in the stage of the first automobiles running on the first roadways. It’s hard to determine if our old horse won’t get us from Point A to Point B better than the dangerous, new-fangled, dangerous first cars! I should not have to be tech-savvy anymore that I need to be savvy about electrical engineering to use my light switch or an auto mechanic to drive my car. The high-tech, IT crowd should be humbler and must be held to the same high standards we ask of other areas of science and technology.
You folks in IT may be very clever folks indeed. Nevertheless, you’ve really given us some pretty mediocre technology. You’ve sold us the sizzle but some of us suspect the steak may not be so good. It’s sad because our “faith” in IT has lowered our standards and have created unrealistic expectations. IT has left largely undiscovered the creative, positive potential in a properly scrutinized web of information networks that advance the time-space dimension and offer new improvements in Matter and Mind. Yet all our modern communication devices, reporting systems and networks have improved productivity in very limited human endeavors in areas that lend themselves to fast computation in technical fields with easily quantifiable outcomes from military weapons or systems to specific medical/surgical monitoring to sifting through mountains of data to ascertain trends or connections.
Having said all the above, go to most any high school faculty, doctors’ or nurses’ lounges and you’ll hear a mixture of grumbling or howling dissent about the “great” reporting and communications systems to which they must comply! Teachers complain they don’t have time to teach and caregivers complain that they don’t have time to give care! They don’t have Time. This was supposed to free up our time but instead in arenas as different as business, education or health care we have created a class of device-slaves. To use the metaphor of our times, IT has created a whole new and massive Swamp. The Swamp snags you in its vast array of different platforms; new, “improved” software; constantly starting a new learning curve; a demand for new reports and potentially useless or meaningless (or misleading) metrics against which inspired business leaders, teachers, caregivers, and innovators are measured. This adds insult to injury. As a consumer, we need to be honest and say that the User Experience and User Interface (UX and UI to use the “lingo”) are terrible.
All of this assumes that normal tasks are not made impossible by inadequate bandwidth or poorly integrated enterprise systems. Would you rely on a system for a doctor’s visit, an important business transaction or a class in which the “system” works 75-80% of the time? As a teacher or businessman, I’m unwilling to rely on such a flawed system. The blameless, unaccountable System creates an enormous amount of wasted downtime. When the system is working, businessmen and professionals spend endless hours inputting data which may or may not add one whit to the quality of their work or productivity. The cost and energy put into creating or complying with manifold new reports, notification requirements, insurance codes, or writing highly fictional business or lesson plans are enormous. They have drained some of our best talent of their creativity, motivation and their unique excellence in multiple ways.
If IT were merely an underdeveloped technology we should be kinder in our evaluation. The problem is that our “worship” of IT or our “Techno-utopia” has created “dangerous gadgets.” It took little time for politicians, bureaucrats, moochers, “grifters”, predators, spies, busybodies and Big Brother to get in on the act! Presto! We have the Surveillance State and varied cyberhackers and cyberterrorists. Perhaps no technology has so imperiled our hard-earned liberties as enshrined in our Bill of Rights as American citizens. After decades of promise, Information Technology and its networks of connectivity have had a disappointing impact on labor productivity, improved quality performance and a deleterious impact on our privacy and freedoms. So far, I see a lot of sizzle but the steak is poorly cooked and grizzled.
H. Scott Shore is a former Ambassador-at-large of OPIC under President George H. W. Bush and is currently an economist and educator. He was also a strategy consultant at Bain & Company and Booz & Company.