Friday, June 10, 2011

The over-hype of technology

During my recent stint working in health technology, I've been reminded of what I already knew. The romanticization of technology as a salve and solve-all is highly flawed. In the tech world, there's a tendency to frame technology as synonymous with new and innovative. This framing overwrites the fact that technologies are all around us, some have aged out, such as the printing press, or the early 2000s' cell phone, but they remain technologies. They are all tools that have evolved. Technology is not just something that is intrinsically novel -- to use that definition risks naturalizing all the tools around us. Theoreticians of science and technology studies (STS) have broken apart these assumptions endlessly, but I think it's a concept that still requires closer reflection in the public sphere.

In STS, the concept of the black box was one way to represent the pre-eminence of technological practices, discussed by Fujimura, Latour, Woolgar, Wynne, etc. (I ought to do this concept a little more justice, but will perhaps later). It considers the way that all the processes and practices that are necessary to produce some technological object (or event) get obscured. Digging into how things come to be and the actors involved in the production of these things can reveal fascinating details. The design/psychology world considered these ideas, most notably in Donald Norman's book The Design of Everyday Things, by reminding his readers that human error with tools does not stem (usually) from the user's stupidity or incompetence. Instead, he argues, one should question the logic behind an object's design.

All this brings me to think about how there's a mutation of black boxing in the technology world. Innovation is always seen as more essential than actually refining the object. New, new, new must mean better, right? Further, I think the prioritization of digital as the meaning of technology today overly segregates how people actually behave and engage with objects.* It almost seems as though there's an expectation that all things will be distilled into a data representation and that material objects are no longer really technology.

Perhaps I'm a bit biased after working in a world where there seems to be a lot of pressure and anxiety to transform existing practices into "new and improved" digital versions. But I think this is a huge problem in the health technology world. It's far too easy to forget that all sorts of medical practices remain technologies (even if they become outmoded/less efficient than newer practices). Such segregation is extremely naïve and misses opportunities to improve existing technologies by preserving the things that work while enhancing the things that don't always work so well.

* Having spent an entire month dealing with the Bay Area transit system's "upgrade" to an electronic transit card, I have a lot of opinions about enhancing an existing system into a completely dysfunctional mess. I will refrain from a rant, but suffice it to say, it will remain my epitome of ill-conceived digital upgrades.

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