Luddite

A conversation I’ve been having with my geek friend Scotty seems to belong here.  (slightly edited for this context)

ME: That requires my palm.  I want a low-tech paper backup.

SCOTTY: WELL! if your going to be a luddite about it (snicker)

ME: I am a luddite.

SCOTTY: care to explain that?

ME: Well, I’m not a full out luddite, but it’s kind of like my view toward libertarians – I wouldn’t want two or all three of the House, Senate, and Executive Branch (on a national or state level) to be Libertarian dominated, but I think we’d be better off if they dominated one of the three or had a strong voice in the house and senate.  We use technology in inappropriate places all the time.  Some of the old ways ARE better. There’s a strong value in being able to do things without the technology and automation and we are losing those skills, or where we still have the skills we are losing the ability to get the supplies we need to use them.  I’m strongly opposed to most of the “computer skills” taught in schools. As an Intel engineer who sends his kids to a computer-free school put it, the type of skills taught in the guise of computer literacy – word processing, spreadsheets, powerpoint, … can be picked up more effectively in a six-week office applications skills class after high school if a kid hasn’t picked it up on their own.  Kids at the local Catholic college-prep high school are being
allowed to turn in their choice of a 20 slide power point presentation or a 6 page paper.  Now the time taken on each project is probably similar, but the difference in mental rigour and required research between the two is absolutely astounding, and I’m appalled by this, but the teachers are convinced that since everything in the business world is moving to power point presentations, that skill is just as valuable as being able to write
well.  Personally,  I agree with Paul Ward:

WYSIWYG systems lead to a focus by the user on appearance, not on structure or content.

– Paul A.S. Ward.  “Poor writing is the problem, not PowerPoint.”  7 October 2004.  Risks Digest, Volume 23: Issue 9.  243 December 2003.  <http://catless.ncl.ac.uk/Risks/23.09.html&gt;.

We tend to assume that because we can produce fancier or more complicated results, we are smarter and that’s not necessarily the case (it once may have been, but it’s not now.)  There is nothing wrong with using an algorithm you don’t understand (either via technology or manually) to produce a result that you need to do some sort of work (for instance, figuring out how many panels of sheetrock you need to buy to finish a 8′ by 10′ room with 9′ ceilings) but being a tool user does not necessarily make you as intellegent or academically advanced as the people who can
derive the tools or understand them.  Just because a 7 year old farm kid can drive a tractor doesn’t mean that they are a prodegy with the knowledge to design a combustion engine from scratch, it means they know how to use the tools.  But the more complicated the technology, the more likely we are to give the tool user the same credit we’d give someone with the knowledge that underlies the tools.  What happens when we decide we don’t need to train engineers who understand internal combustion any more
because almost everyone knows how to drive?

Last week I found this great album on the internet, “The Kleptones, A Night at the Hip Hopera” which is hip-hop about current issues (mainly war and censorship) using mostly samples from Queen.  One of the samples on there is someone saying (probably in the 70’s) “Machines should do the work so people can think”.  We keep trying to use machines to do the thinking too and using technology to offload tasks from employees of
the business to customer self-service.  The comparison between U-Scan checkouts in grocery and variety stores and vending machines is a key example of this.  With the U-Scan, all of the physical work is still being done; only now I as a customer am supposed to do it, rather than an employee of the store.  We’ve set it up so no knowledge of the products is required to ring someone up and removed the human contact.  In a vending machine, there is still no human contact involved, but the work I do is the same as with making a purchase, the order is just changed – I pay, I select what I want, I take my item.  The vending
machine is available 24 hours a day and can provide items in places where
there isn’t enough traffic or people aren’t buying in large enough
quantities to support a store and clerk or a store and clerk at all of the hours that a customer may want or need an item.  As a customer, a vending machine provides me with needed items more conveniently than I would be able to get them otherwise.  Admittedly, if I need to purchase a large number of items, the
vending machine is inconvenient, but if it is sufficently inconvenient I can travel to a location that supports a store open at that time.  As a customer, a U-Scan machine just moves the work from store employees to me – and it’s not like I pay less if I go through the U-Scan aisle.  Not to mention that you never know if you will go to a store and they will have all but the U-Scan closed.  This is why I’ve quit shopping at my neighborhood Albertsons.  They advertise that they provide carryout and friendly customer
service, etc.  (i.e. check out the big “Helping make your life easier” logo on their homepage.)  But I went in there one evening last month and when I asked if there was a regular check stand open, they told me I had to use the U-Scan.

The other reason I’m a partial luddite is that I believe the more complex the system, the more likely it is that you will have a failure.  Technical solutions and processes are usually MORE complex than manual solutions and processes.  If you can’t reduce complexity and risk or keep risk stable while providing more NEEDED services (not just becoming buzzword complient) or if you are just moving costs (like U-Scans), then technology
is the wrong answer.  Unfortunately, we have a culture that worships technology.

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