preloder

Changing the way we think about technology as a solution.

I spend a lot of my time researching/thinking about systems and technology and how they impact us both on a global and personal level. There’s been a lot written about what’s wrong with existing structures, but we’re a bit starved for practical solutions for those without political power or tremendous social clout. I want to talk about a shift in how we think about problems that yields some interesting results.

The People Problem

There is a tendency in modern society to treat people as the problem and technology as the solution. In education for example, an under-performing class is more often “treated” by the purchase of more computers, iPads, or learning software instead of the hiring of additional teachers, aids, and specialists.

In healthcare, instead of giving doctors more time to dedicate to patient care, hospitals are more likely to invest in updating databases to reclassify ailments and the people who have them. Very often patients themselves will be blamed for their illness. The prevailing view is that it is not the technology of drugs or diets or workout routines that has failed the patient, but the patient who has failed the technology.

Not-So-Adaptable Technology

One of the results of this thinking is that we have adopted a mindset which dictates that humans adapt to technology, instead of creating technology properly adapted to humans, their context, and their environment.

(This paradigm is also a natural consequence of what Ursula Franklin called “prescriptive technology” and our modern concepts of scalability, but that’s another discussion for another time.)

One famous example of humans-adapting-to-tech is the keyboard layout. Ever wonder why the letters are laid out in a fairly nonsensical manner? Early typewriters suffered from a problem where the keys and hammers would jam if a person was typing too quickly. The typewriter manufacturer did a study to find out which keys were used most sequentially from one another and then split them up as much as possible.

This made typing slower, harder to learn, and required more effort on the part of the user, but it solved the technology’s problem. Ironically, the problem of keys and hammers has long since vanished, but we are still stuck with the same nonsensical keyboard. 

The modern office space is another example of this. It is not good for a human to sit at a desk 8+ hours a day staring at a screen in 70 – 73 degree temperatures carefully isolated from any change in season or sunlight. It is, however, ideal for the computer and especially for the corporate system profiting from the human’s labor.

(There’s a lot more to be said about the office space example, but if I get going on corporations, I will never stop. I write cyberpunk for a reason.)

A Practical Approach

I propose to you instead that when we are trying to solve problems, we consider instead the human, with as much contextual specificity as possible, and then begin to build our solutions around that.

Obviously the way we do work in the broader sense is long-overdue for an overhaul, but I mean specifically in the way we look in our own lives — the things we do have control over.

Let me give you an example and then we’ll wrap up this post. A friend of mine hated doing the dishes. Her husband did too, so the dishes piled up. Dealing with the clutter was stressful, took up space, and a huge energy drain. They tried setting up schedules, taking turns, looking into better storage options, etc. Money was tight so buying off the problem (capitalism’s favorite solution) wasn’t an option.

In an act of frustration and brilliance, my friend looked at herself, her problem, and the dishes. She didn’t want to do the dishes. So, instead of trying to force herself into another energy-consuming system, she simply got rid of the dishes. They kept two plates, four cups, and a few silverware.

The solution struck me as brilliant on several fronts. 

1) When it was time to eat there was a maximum of two plates that needed washing. 

2) The extra plates were donated so instead of a new plate being made — consuming resources and encouraging a giant plate company somewhere to make more — the plates (the resources that had already been consumed) were re-used. 

3) The plates went to a family with low resources, freeing up resources they would have otherwise spent on plates. So in other words, the plates helped out the local community. 

4) When friends came over, they brought their own plates, which made everyone feel closer and like they were more a part of the evening.

5) My friend has the extra energy to deal with everything else that came her way in the day. More spoons, if you will (hah hah). 

The Point

The point is not that everyone should embrace minimalism. Quite the opposite. This is not a good solution for everyone, maybe even most people. The point is this: when faced with a problem, consider the human in the context of the problem. Do not assume the human is the thing that needs to be fixed or side-lined. New tech, or conformity to existing tech, is not always a good solution. People first. 

There’s so much more to be said, but I’m gonna wrap this up here. If you have further examples of the principle in action, I want to hear them. Also, if there’s a particular application of this idea to your field of expertise, tell me about it.

Seriously.

I’m still deep in the research trenches pulling everything into a coherent, useful whole. Fresh insights from outside my fields of expertise are incredibly welcome.

This blog post is a slightly-more-organized version of a twitter thread I did. You can find the original thread here: https://twitter.com/rachelthebeck/status/1194476507931955200

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