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Information Technology: Trick or Treat?

There’s always lots of discussion about populations as they experience the migration from an agrarian, through industrial, and to information societies.  Some technology triggers typically precipitate migration.  The steam engine is purported to be the trigger for the migration to the industrial community, and information technology is the trigger for the migration to the information society.  We can see the economic and societal benefits of technology.  But is it always a good thing? Sometimes there are unintended consequences. 

As a technologist, I, of course, may have a bias that favors information technology.  But, when I was a CIO, one had to consider the value and benefit that information technology provides for an organization.  Just as with the Halloween tradition of trick or treat, we may anticipate the treat of technology candy, but without the requisite benefit and value, we may be tricked into something that proves detrimental to people, processes, and perhaps to society. 

Luddites hated technology.  But history suggests that their disdain had more to do with the political ramifications of those technological advancements.   In this case, technology was invented that put large masses of people out of work by automating their jobs with the weaving machine.  Because of this technology trigger, many people were economically devastated and plunged into poverty, ruin and starvation. 

Another example, whether fact, fiction, or folklore, can be found in discussions surrounding the lost city of Atlantis.   Atlanteans were supposed to be a technologically advanced society. Though the legend says those technological benefits provided the means of creating a utopian society, careless use of technology ultimately became the means that brought about the destruction that sent them to the ocean floor. 

Some theories attribute the ineffective use of technology as a factor that contributed to the fall of the Roman Empire.  The Romans had many technological advances, particularly in weapons, engineering, and medicine.  But, as they continued to grow and expand the empire, they failed to leverage their technology to feed and care for the people in the newly acquired territories.  

Today, we can use technology to substitute for face-to-face interactions with Facebook, Zoom, and Twitter.  We send text messages and emails instead of human interactions; we are avatars, not flesh and blood. We have telecommuters and geographically dispersed workers who have minimal person-to-person interactions.  As humans, we experience things with all of our senses.  Overuse or over-reliance on this technology tempts us to forget our humanity – sincerity, love, honesty … mercy – mere emoticons do not transmit these feelings.   And technology has not (yet) provided the means of smelling the sweet aroma of the rose or feeling the warmth of a loving embrace. 

Once as a service provider, I had a significant lapse in customer service that required a profound apology. We were able to repair the situation and restore the faith of our customers, but it required getting on a plane and facing the irate customers face-to-face with a simple message – I’m sorry.  Then and only then were we able to rebuild trust to get us past our egregious mistake. 

The trick or treat here is not that technology is bad or good.  But, if we ask for the treat from our technology, “candy,” we might get tricked into unintended consequences. Keeping an eye on those potential consequences and perhaps learning from history can help us understand limitations or dangers and avoid detrimental outcomes. 

~ Dr. Linda Cureton

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