Absurd!: Technology Creates the Opposite of its Intended Purpose

by Ron

photo-1434494343833-76b479733705I’m continuing my series on an in-depth look at a wonderful little book that’s twenty years old this year.  The title is Management of the Absurd by Richard Farson.  You may want to consider dropping back and reading the previous blogs about ABSURD!  I think it will put each new one in great context.

Chapter 7 is titled: Technology Creates the Opposite of its Intended Purpose

Our author anchors this chapter with the statement “Technology helps us in countless ways, but it always backfires.  The term for this phenomenon in medicine is iatrogenic, meaning “physician-induced.”  There are more than a thousand different diseases that would not exist if not for the practice of medicine and the existence of hospitals.”

A couple of years ago I personally experienced one of these iatrogenic hospital infections.  The heart operation I went if for went well and I would have recovered quickly except that I contracted one of the hospital infections that made my daily life miserable and actually caused more life threatening risk than the heart operation.  Now, had my father and the kind of heart operation available to him years ago like I do today, he may have lived long enough to know his grandchildren.  So the intended consequence of better heart care was indeed met.  But the unintended consequences of difficult to contain and kill hospital infections was itself more life threatening.

Two major consequences that I see playing out in the corporate world today that fit into this category are email and forecasting.

Email and Forecasting

I’ve written about email in other posts and probably will again but let me summarize quickly here.

I couldn’t run my business today (nor could any other enterprise) without email.  And in fact as I was cleaning out some cupboards this week I came across my original Blackberry.  The Blackberry was introduced in January 1999.  I believe I purchased mine in March of 1999.  I’m not opposed to email or the devices we use to send and receive.

The problem I have is that emails are not well suited for many reasons other than exchange of information (iatrogenic).  Because of the proliferation and 24/7 availability of email we tend to use it for project management, decision making, arguments, disciplining, developing and a whole bunch of other reasons where it just doesn’t work very well.  Use it for information sharing but put it down and call or meet with the person or team to solve, improve or advance all of the other issues.

Forecasting is another place where I see the siren song of technology creating unintended consequences.  The belief seems to be that if we just have more information (often striving for “all” the information) it will help us become better forecasters.  Brain science debunks that theory right off the bat.  The human mind is just terrible at forecasting.  If you want to debate me on that statement, I’ll start with political polls and forecasts.  End of argument!  And other research done by the people who actually study forecasting for a living tells us that the companies who seem to be best at forecasting do it with a minimum amount of data.  More data doesn’t make better forecasting.

And of course to end on a personal note that all of us have either experienced or participated in, just watch the family out for dinner sitting at the same table together, each on their device “communicating” with someone else.  It’s an astounding and sad example of technology creating the opposite of its intended purpose.

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