This article first appeared on my Medium blog
As ever in the world of tech, we are hearing a lot about the “next big thing”. These days it’s all about Self driving cars, virtual and augmented reality. A few years ago it was all about The Internet of Things, and before that it was smart TVs and 3D movies. Yet, even a cursory look around will show you that the ‘experts’ were wrong. There is no clamouring around for the brightest, smartest TV, few movies are made 3D, certainly not the blockbuster movies, and there does not seem to be a long line of people queuing up for the latest smart refrigerator, toaster or light bulb.
I’m certainly not suggesting the latest big thing will not become the norm in the future, but what I have observed is that so called experts usually get it wrong, and the reason they get it wrong is because many of these ‘big things’ have not considered the human element. All they have done it taken a new technology and said “this is cool let’s make something with it.”
Technology has a habit of going off into places we never thought of. The internet was created for military purposes, yet eventually found its way in to the lives of everyone with a computer. Even the humble computer was never thought of as a home computer. It was originally created to crack German codes during the Second World War. Even the mobile phone was created as a business tool. It’s creators never thought of people using it as a personal phone or to send messages to our loved ones and watch TV shows and sports games.
And that’s the thing about technology. It rarely ends up doing what it was originally designed to do. When Apple launched the iPhone in 2007, there was no App Store. That came a year later and it was only after the launch of the App Store that the real potential of the smart phone was unveiled. People were able to customise their phones with the apps they wanted and used.
Technology commentators could be accused of being a little obsessed. Take for example the self-driving car. Yes, it is an impressive feat of technology. But why would you want a self-driving car? I love driving. I love the feeling I have when I am in control. I steer the car in the direction I want it to go and it goes in that direction. I press my right foot down and it goes a little faster. I love that feeling. So do many other people. So why take that pleasure away from us? What I don’t like is traffic jams. So why can’t these amazingly talented people come up with technology that ensures traffic lights change in a way that cars move forward at a constant, optimal rate? They don’t because traffic lights and traffic flow are not cool. And for those who think self-driving cars will allow them to go to the pub for a few beers without having to worry about how much they drink, think again. Drink driving laws are worded in a way that means you are breaking the law if you are “in charge of a vehicle while under the influence of alcohol.” So even if your car has the ability to drive itself, you are still in charge of that car and therefore you are still breaking the law.
These days I see a lot of articles about virtual and augmented reality, and the exciting future these new technologies will bring to our lives. I too can see a lot of potential for these technologies, but I fear most of the development with these technologies are again not taking in to account human behaviour. Pokemon Go is a great game, but it is only a game. It does not improve our lives in any way. And if the technology used in Pokemon Go is developed into other areas, I do hope it does not involve having to lift my phone up, point it down a street and allow an app to tell me what’s down there, or even worse put on a pair of goggles. I’m afraid humans will not use the technology if it involves so many steps or hideous eyewear. Humans just do not adopt new technologies like that.
We need technologies that will do the hard work for us in the background. Humans love convenience. Having to open apps and point a device is not convenient. I think this is why despite all our devices having video cameras and microphones enabling us to communicate in real time with our colleagues and partners anywhere in the world, so many people still commute to a physical office every day, sit at a desk with an archaic desktop computer, printing out emails and other documents on paper, so we can sit around using a highlighter pen to highlight interesting words and sentences. Which when you think about it is just so old fashioned. We did that in the 1990s when we did not have video cameras in our phones and the cost of an international call was prohibitively expensive. We could not share documents in the cloud and did not have real time updating and editing. But, using a physical highlighter pen on a piece of paper is wonderfully convenient and the process to print out a document is so easy, usually involving the press of two buttons.
If we are going to push for a real twenty-first century work environment, using the technology we have freely available, developers are going to have to figure out how to make using that technology more convenient than the old habits it wants to replace. I for one use technology to allow me to be able to freely roam around doing the work I love. But most people are not like me. Even the slightest barrier to entry, will stop the average person from adopting new technology. Having to learn how to use something is one of the biggest barriers I know. Yes, a teenager might use Snapchat every day and is perfectly comfortable talking via video to their friends. But teenagers are not the leaders in work environments. When these teenagers get to the office, they are forced to arrive at the office at 9:00am, to use machines developed in the 1990s, to physically go to a meeting room for a meeting and print out PowerPoint files for their forty or fifty something year old boss. To these teenagers, all this modern technology is just for fun and for communicating with their friends. Surely it would be better if it were these forty or fifty something year old bosses who were the catalysts for change, to be the ones adopting the new technologies to make their working environments more efficient and better at adopting new technologies so that their workforce can spend more time with their loved ones and less time in the office.
Technology is supposed to make our lives better, more convenient and less stressful. But when technology needs a lot of learning, a lot of button pressing and still means we have to be in a static office eight to ten hours a day, then it fails. We can all do better here. The developers can make it easier to learn and more intuitive. Managers and leaders can make it a policy to remove remote access to printers, make their workers have to go to another floor to pick up their printed out sheets if necessary, make all meetings video conference meetings (or better still ban all meetings) and stop this stupid insistence on being at the office at 9:00am every day.
Let’s use the technology we have today properly, and for what it was developed for, and develop the new technologies for a better life for all.