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New Questions on the Impact of Technology

Business people often think about technology in terms of what it can do for them: marketing, sales, production, the back office, new products, new delivery mechanisms, etc. The same people are often also concerned about what the technology might do to them: direct costs, missteps in implementation, rapid depreciation, security breaches, etc.

Another impact of technology on an organization is the way it affects people.

The Problems With Technology

In March, I attended a conference in Texas where philosophers, sociologists, and theologians looked at the impact of technology on individuals and societies. The tone of the conference was decidedly negative. The model response seemed to be some form of retreat from technology. One speaker, Arthur Boers, focused his remarks on a series of questions:

  • Attention: Does technology affect capacity to pay attention? Does the quantity of data affect our ability to respond?
  • Limits: Does reliance on technology affect community standards, morés, taboos? Is it addictive or does it affect other addictive behavior?
  • Engagement: Does technology use raise expectations of self and others about how much we can accomplish and how quickly? Do speedy encounters make conflicts and misunderstandings more likely?
  • Relationships: What is the impact of increasing dependence on mediated communications on relationships and communities? Are people more isolated, disconnected, lonely?
  • Time: How much time does technology consume – to use, to fix, to maintain? What does such time displace? Does technology change our perception of time?
  • Space: What are the implications of disconnecting “meaningful presence” from the location of our bodies? Does technology emphasize the distant instead of the close by?

These are important questions, but even good answers would offer limited help to a present-day business person. The questions don’t acknowledge the value that also comes from technology. And many answers lead us toward a retreat from technology — not an option for most in business — rather than finding a way to embrace technology without having it consume us.

There were very few at this meeting who were excited about the opportunities technology can offer, so these questions fit the tone of the meeting. The two primary speakers at the meeting had retreated to the mountain areas of Montana, finding a slower, more disconnected pace. One of the speakers was a graduate of Harvard who had taken a job in manual labor enabling him to retreat in daily life from connection with technology. The net of the conference was good and thoughtful dialogue, but while the solutions might be great for some people, they don’t have much to say to the majority of 21st century business people.

Another Perspective?

The next week I attended a major technology conference in the Seattle area on the Microsoft campus. I expected this conference to offer a stark contrast to the one in Texas, extolling the virtues and power of technology without much reference to its downsides. In an afternoon presentation, futurist Geoffrey Moore laid out a rosy, exciting, connected future of new opportunities from technology. Respondents were from high-tech companies, and my expectation was that the panel would complete the picture, offering an overly optimistic and upbeat view of technology.

To my surprise, the tone quickly turned to the mixed blessings from technology. A Google executive responded to the futurist first. He said,

“You have described my world. Last week I was in a meeting with my iPad open to a window in China and a window in Europe. All of my staff was sitting there with their mobile devices open, some were instant messaging with those in other parts of the world. Our pace was frantic and difficult. We get a lot done, but when I get home, I can’t even talk with my wife or watch television. I am constantly wired.”

Other panelists, all high tech people, joined in and here is a sampling of comments from them:

“Make your money, lose your soul.”

“Anxiety over cultural ADD (attention deficit disorder).”

“Are we heading for collective intelligence or collective neurosis?”

“We must understand the importance of the narrative we are shaping together.”

“We need to find a new story to tell and a means to tell it.”

“If you lose the thread of the narrative, you have lost your soul.”

Apparently the concerns over technology are common, whether you can retreat from it in the mountains of Montana, or you need to live with it in Silicon Valley. There was a significant difference in the questions raised in the second conference. No one was looking for a retreat from technology, but a solution that still embraced the strengths of the technology. But no one offered solutions to dealing with the challenges from technology within a wired business world.

Is it possible to have a life that interacts with people while still working within a business that embraces technology? Can a business that embraces technology still value its people (employees, customers, suppliers)? Can the technology support our lives rather than make them more difficult?

A New Set of Questions

I went back to the spirit of the questions suggested by Arthur Boers, but rewrote them in search of questions for those whose lives are within a 21st century, technology-based business.

  • Attention: Technology places information from many sources at our fingertips, enabling access to ideas from all over the world. How can I embrace what that technology can bring while reserving time for thought, focus, and reflection?
  • Limits: Technology makes information and connections available at any time and any place. Can I gain the benefits of this for myself and my business without having to be “on” 24/7? How do I separate needed access to information from addictive behavior?
  • Speed: Technology enables the rapid communication and access of information, measured in seconds rather than hours or days. How do I manage appropriate responses allowing time for understanding, insight, and thoughtful responses?
  • Relationships: Technology allows us to maintain or build relationships beyond our neighborhood and around the world, and maintain these relationships between physical visits. But it may cause me to give priority to technology mediated relationships over face-to-face relationships. What guidelines would help me balance the two?
  • Time: Technology makes it possible to save a great deal of time because of its efficiency. But it may also take time both to learn new technology and to maintain old technology. How do I manage time effectively in a technological era?
  • Space: Technology enables a business presence in places where we have no physical presence. Do I know enough about the differences between physical and virtual presence to make wise tradeoffs between the two?
  • Perspective: Technology connects us to so many sources, but we do not have time to interact with them all. Does this cause us to narrow our focus by choosing only those sources that align with our biases? Does this directed access allow us to avoid insight and ideas from outside our search, making us less aware of alternative views or issues beyond our focus? When should we search and when should we browse?
  • Truth: Technology opens up many more sources than might have been available in a library, bookstore, or newsstand. But much of this material has not been edited, nor does it have any accountable party committed to its reliability. How do we validate the information from these sources? How do we better separate fact from opinion?

How might we, and our businesses, need to change to embrace the positives from technology without being overwhelmed by the downsides?

I am not prepared to offer a simple answer to any of these questions, though I may offer some of my own thoughts in later columns. But I will ask two more questions:

  • Are these the right questions, or should we add to the list or modify any of these?
  • Would it be valuable to put together groups of people (at companies, in universities, and across the disciplines of sociology, technology, theology, and business) to explore such questions?

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Al Erisman is executive editor of Ethix, which he co-founded in 1998.
He spent 32 years at The Boeing Company, the last 11 as director of technology. He was selected as a senior technical fellow of The Boeing Company in 1990, and received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Iowa State University.

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