January 19, 2016

The fallacy of technology

It has been said over and over that technology shapes behavior, and that behavior fuels technology changes. But if you take the magnifying glass and look closer, we'll see that the relationship is far more complex and in some cases quite unpredictable.

In order to make this point clearer let's start with an real life example. Videoconferencing and video calls. This is a true example of a type of technology that used to be marketed some years ago as something that would shape behavior and change the way people communicate. In the business world video conferencing was for a long time a very expensive technology, and one that could only be afforded by companies with centers of decision scattered across the globe, or distant geographical locations. As soon as broadband telecommunications price started dropping and video compression technologies evolved, video conferencing started to be available to more and more companies and organizations. Did this change the way people worked?
Did this revolutionized the remote working practices? Of course not. The chain of command that is enforced in most organizations is still very much based in personal interactions, face to face communication, endless meetings, and non-verbal communication to send power based messages that somehow are diluted in video communication.
Did technology changed behavior in this space? No.

Let's now go on to the personalized aspect of video communication. The mass market adoption. Starting with Skype and then later with Apple's Facetime or Google's Hangouts. Who are the main users of such technology? Well, families can be considered as being in that group. Elements of a family that are either out on a trip, or live distant from each other. Specially families of military serving overseas. Now, not all families that are separated by distance use video. Over the years several attempts have been made to make this a profitable technology, but somehow people got used to the idea that it's there, exists, and it is used in very particular situations, but does not change behavior.

Video based communication is just one small example in the long line of technology that is part of the predictions made in the past about its impact in the future.

On the other hand, internet based social networks have taken off dramatically in the last 10 years. This is a very good example of the dichotomy between technology and behavior. A lot has been said and written about the impact of social networks, but very few people stop and think which one shapes the other.

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that technologies that seem useful contain the fallacy that they will change human behavior, and others that seem superficial and somewhat irrelevant are picked up by human behavior and taken to levels of importance that no one could foresee.

The key element here is time. The next time you read or hear that technology A or B will change the world, please be aware of these considerations, because sometimes irrational behavior shapes technology, and completely shallow and somewhat useless technology will most probably have a dramatic impact on human behavior.

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