It’s accepted wisdom that technology is nothing but a neutral tool that has no inherent meaning or effect. It’s also not true.
Consider information technology: Resource planning and supply chain software, and all of the gizmos and apps attached to those programs, have changed how businesses are run.
Decision makers aren’t just better informed, but they make decisions at different times and in different ways. Plans that were once forward-looking are now invented and managed in real-time. Visibility up and down the supply chain has redefined who’s responsible for what, and how costs and profits get divvied up. Jobs have been destroyed, just as others created.
Technology didn’t just enable improvements in the status quo, but brought with it a POV that encouraged decisions based on the dictates of statistical controls, and disincentivized gut calls (or risk taking). It relocated responsibility from individuals to the system, and dictated actions and services to vendors and partners who’d traditionally been in control.
The management of every big enterprise on the planet has changed dramatically. So has the experience of working at them. To ignore the biases inherent in that technology is to misunderstand its function.
Something similar has happened to the effects of information technology in the consumer world.
Internet search provides immensely valuable access to a literally endless source of information, but that access comes filtered and ranked by controls built into the system. Corporate sponsors can influence the appearance of search results. Fellow users can elevate or bury content based on the sheer volume of their visits (and links) to web sites, let alone their registered reactions.
Social media platforms are equally biased by technology, favoring information that others have recognized (or sponsors paid for), and making no distinctions as to the veracity, merits, or even outright danger of the content they publish.
Facebook’s latest issue with snuff videos was an outcome of its design, not an exception.
Throw in smartphones and how, where, and how often we use them, and consumer information technology has touched and changed much of our lives.
The biases of consumer information tech are simple: provide endless content by incentivizing its consumption and propagation. We’ve traded the tyranny of elites deciding what we should see and hear, and computer algorithms do it for us instead.
The medium really is the message after all.
I wish we talked more about the POV inherent in the technology we use. Pretending that it’s agnostic gives its promoters carte blanche to transform our lives, perhaps in ways that we wouldn’t allow if we weren’t constantly told that it’s inevitable or, worse, that we’re in control (or at least culpably responsible) because we choose to have apps on our phones.
I miss the old days of the future of the Internet, when our POV was the one that mattered, and we were full of wild-eyed hopes for personal empowerment and freedom. I think we used to recognize the transformative power of technology, and respect and fear what we could do with it.
Now, the technology dictates the teleology of our experience.