Steve Fenton

Tech is only as bad as the non-tech analog

I had an interesting discussion with a very smart woman I know about tech. In particular, we talked about whether technology is inherently good, or bad. Our conclusion was that tech is only as bad as the non-tech analog for the activity you are engaging in.

This is deep stuff, so let’s use some examples to explore the thought process.

Chronological order

It’s a massive over-simplification (but a useful one) to imagine that when the World Wide Web became available (tech), some bright spark said “I’m selling books in my store here on the high street, I could also sell them on the World Wide Web”. This chronological version of events is a great example of a positive non-technical story (buying a book) remaining a positive technical story (buying a book online). In an ideal world, the two would co-exist as part of an omni-channel experience… I can walk around a real store and breathe in the literature, before making some random purchase based on a hand-written recommendation from a store employee; and I can also go online and order something rare that would otherwise be hard to find.

So, a positive offline experience translates into a positive online experience.

It’s easy when you do it in this order.

Working backwards

It’s a little harder in reverse, but I believe we need to gain some intellect in identifying the non-tech analog of any activity we find ourselves doing with technology.

In most cases, our categorisation of a website is not in itself enough to determine the correct non-technical activity we are engaging in. For example, social media isn’t the online equivalent of just one single offline thing. Each interaction you have on social media is in itself a separate classifiable action. Understanding this helps us to work backwards. Arranging to meet our friends is a different activity to posting photograps of our new massive car. We used to arrange to meet people for meals before technology came along to assist us. It’s a positive thing. We’ve also experienced bragging in the offline world and doing it in a social post doesn’t change the negative nature of the activity.

Similarly, mobile games come in different flavours. Some are just a bit of fun that can help pass the time when you’re waiting on a train station platform for the replacement bus service. They are like those little plastic games where you try and get a ball through a maze. Not a big deal. Others remind me of those old sticker books. You’d buy the album and save up some money each week to purchase a sticker pack. Most of the stickers were pretty common, so you’d fill up 90% of your album over the course of a few months. But then you were caught in the artificial scarcity trap…

“If we don’t print very many copies of some stickers, they become a scarce resource. People will pay more for a scarce resource. We could limit the supply and provide a service to buy ‘any stickers you need to complete your collection’ at a premium price… even though we know it’s not ‘any stickers’, it’s the specific ones we limit.”

People have a choice. They can leave the album unfinished, or they can pay a premium to complete it. This negative non-tech activity is a good analog for many mobile games.

Considered activity

So, when you engage with technology to undertake an activity, you might find it useful to generate a number of non-tech examples of the same activity to probe whether you are generating, or consuming, trash. The technology itself is just another way to do the same things we were doing in the 1980s. What was bad in the eighties is typically still bad now. Often more so.

Written by Steve Fenton on