It’s not about the technology

There is a well-meaning saying being uttered in meeting rooms and conference calls throughout the world. But it is misguided. This is a post about why the idea of “It’s not about the technology,” is a dangerous one. For the sake of my fingers we can call it INATT.

It is usually muttered in large groups when considering the implementation or the implications of technology and there usually follows a ripple of appreciative agreement. Sage wisdom has been imparted.

Technology and culture are one

But in reality, it really is about the technology, and how we consider technology as separate from us, so INATT is a symptom about how we think about world and our place in it as we pass through time. Technology is seen as an alien independent factor of change, like the weather or the tides. We feel powerless as it washes over us. It is not. It is the creation of humankind, moreover the creation of one part of humanity being thrust over the rest. It is, in other words, political.

The reason that we need to break away from INATT, particularly within organisations, is the underlying idea that we just need to organise our thoughts on what we really want or need and that the technology choice will be made any easier.  Quasi-religious incantations follow INATT, after it has set the overall mood of wisdom. Closely related is the sentiment that “We just need to work out what we want to achieve.” or perhaps, “Let’s focus on the business outcome”

These are fine questions, but why must there be a wall between the objective and the method? Now I’m going to ask you to concentrate for this bit: Technology is a branch of politics and culture, and like those things it affects what it means to be human which in turn affects society. Human values are created by technology, because it forces us to create values. What was not considered important before is made important. So we debate it.

Forks and IVF

Before forks we ate with a knife and our hands. The existence of forks prompted, one assumes, a degree of debate about whether hands was polite or not [I checked in Wikipedia, yes it did and forks were seen as ungodly!]. We now do not regard forks as technology, it has passed over into the invisible. Before the advent of IVF and the freezing of human eggs, there was little debate: you could have children or not. We are still grappling with the impact of these technologies. In what circumstances is it not OK to proceed to pregnancy against the will of the other party, or if one of the parents has subsequently died. We didn’t have the values to deal with these sorts of quandaries before, and now the ethics committee, politicians and the popular press are working its way through it with our mewlings as civilisation’s focus group. Ancient philosophy didn’t have to grapple with human nature when it was this complex.

Blackberries and dads that aren’t really there

Before the advent of Blackberries we didn’t worry maybe so much about work life balance. You were working at the office or not with all of the familial fall out that would ensue if you were “working late” or “too hard”. When Blackberries and other forms of easily accessible email arrived, company by company, there arose a crisis of human values amongst the participants about availability and presence in a mindful sense. Dad is in the room, but is Dad in the Dad, no he is in next week’s sales figures.

The smartphone continues to confound our values. A new crisis occurs and is debated seemingly weekly. It has yet to pass into the invisible. AirBnB, Uber, Tinder, Snapchat, Revenge porn, Google, Facebook and the NSA. These are all value crises we are working through at this very minute. What is fun? What is love? What is privacy? Do we want to maintain our disrupted industries? Is it better to suck value out and hope for the best and be thankful? How does one conduct oneself without becoming a victim or a douche?

These crises of values arrive in the wake of the technology. They are in the main perceived as the wash of change. It makes some technology uncomfortable and newsworthy, in a way that other technology is not.

Technology is the driver and the solution

So we are in the workshop. The attendees and the consultants are dressed in their ceremonial robes and the incantation of INATT begins. At that moment, all thinking about that value-crisis stops, because the group can now only think about what will happen in the future in terms of the values of today. All nuance is lost, that they are building the future will tools that could be BOTH technological and cultural. The only reason that they are sitting there is because of the technology. It is the driver and the solution. It has constructed every modern business phenomenon in recent memory.

And of course “it” doesn’t exist: there is no “technology”. There are a series of different technologies. Some become invisible and are disregarded because they are humdrum. Then there are the variety of tools which are in various states of landing, and individually creating values-crises. Even more than this, the efficacy of a new technology is defined by the size of the value-crisis it creates. Is it disruptive? Is it going to change fundamentally how you are going to work? If not, why bother? In fact we need to perhaps face the fact, particularly in the deployment of some tools such as Enterprise Social Networks that the reason that adoption (whatever that means) is struggling is that they have not created a value crisis at all. The difference between no email and email was huge. The difference between the desk phone and the mobile phone was huge. The difference between using a computer to communicate with a group of people in two slightly different ways? Potentially compared to the previous examples it is not big enough to cause the bloody cultural revolution some seek.

Using value-crises for fun and profit

But by ignoring the value-crisis that we are attempting to create or mitigate or putting down to an unintended consequence or by-product is, on reflection, insane. Let’s consider an alternative world where our role is see technology as intimately bound to us as time and culture. New technology will be coming down the pipe. Imagine the hype cycle graph with technologies tumbling down it like rocks towards you. You need to choose the ones to ignore and choose the ones to engage with. For each technology there will be an advantage to someone, that is after all what it is for. But of course all your competitors have access to this as well, so time is short. It is our role to see which technologies are inevitable and will need perhaps to mitigate the coming value-crisis. Others we will see and we will intend to create a value crisis, and use it to change the organisation for the better.