As we find technology becomes easier and easier for people to use, it does sometimes feel to me that we are on a precipice of terminally dumbing-down our species. Here lies the distinction between intuitive user interfaces and user experiences, and complex activities and specialist knowledge.
The history of information technology has often been about the reduction of previously complex tasks into simpler activities: Gutenberg’s printing presses reduced the laborious manual work of highly educated scribes, turning themselves blind meticulously copying manuscripts; the telephone put an end to the skilled yet intermediating role of the telegraph operator, and in turn mechanical, electronic and digital technology saw the end of telephone operators. Photography has gone from a complex amalgam of science and art, through the expensive times of photo laboratories (and photo lab technicians) to point-and-click simplicity on smartphones.
And yet in each of these cases, the act of creativity was still a necessity; you still need to know the story you wish to tell and have the means to tell it to use any of those systems effectively. The technology is a tool for us to use. Training someone to use Word doesn’t make them a novelist. Training someone to use Project doesn’t make them a project manager.
Conversely, much other technological innovation has been about taking people out of the equation: from Adam Smith to Taylor and Ford, industrial automation and process reduced the reliance on human (manual) skills where machines and process could remove variability. This is what powered the industrial revolution and beyond.
In our modern world, these three cases often become confused. The assumption too often is that ease of use of a piece of software means that anyone can now do a particular activity.
I give my life to SatNavs. Whilst I can read a map and navigate as a result, I can’t do this easily whilst also driving and constantly reassessing the route based on streams of traffic data. A SatNav does that fairly well, recalculating as we go, and I’ve learned that increasing sophistication of algorithms means that I’m better off just following the instructions of the machine without thought because it will (probably) get me there more quickly.
I don’t, however, give my life unquestioningly to suggestions to the way I should interact with people in my network on LinkedIn. Should I wish Bob a happy 5th “work anniversary”? No! Because I know Bob hates his job and has spent four of the past five years desperately trying to escape. If I was going to send him anything, it would be a (highly supportive) kick up the arse to ask why he’s still there.
When it comes to the ways in which we manage and nurture the relationships and networks that we have as humans, social networks provide support. However they don’t offer a panacea, a Taylorist solution to the human challenges of helping to foster collaborative and supportive networks of people to help us through our lives. Without both an understanding of our unique human abilities to do this, but also some strategies for how we might achieve good outcomes, we risk becoming useless slaves to such systems.