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An alternative (and less punny) title to this post could have been: “From Technology to Services – How Modern Technical Understanding Is Being Replaced By Abstracted Services.” I know, doesn’t really sound like a catchy blog post, does it? Maybe more like an academic paper on the subject (which by itself might be interesting, but not exactly blog material). But the subject matter is the same: identifying and analyzing the trend in modern technological devices and services of becoming less of a “technology” and more of a “magical black-box thing.”
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. – Arthur C. Clarke
This concern of mine is not intended to be a dystopian rant against the dangers of technology or a nostalgic recounting of “the good old days” when technology and life were (supposedly) simpler. Rather, it is a very niche concern emanating from a computer geek (me) about a logical extrapolation of technology trends. Not exactly mainstream appeal, I realize. But it has been a thought that has taken root in the back of my mind since watching the “Learn to Code” video from Code.org about why kids should learn programming.
But I want to separate the possibly self-serving personal testimonials by Gates and Zuckerberg from the digital literacy aspect of the video’s message: we are quickly developing into a society where our ability to navigate the world around us and being informed citizens is increasingly dependent upon our understanding of technology. But at the same time that this “digital literacy” is becoming a greater component of our needs, we are simultaneously abstracting the core concepts and understandings of that technology out of the hands of even the technologically-literate.
In other words, the more dependent we are on technology, the better an understanding we should have of it. When the effectiveness of a democracy depends on its citizens understanding the democratic process, it behooves us to spend the time to learn. But conversely, the more advanced our technology becomes and the further our dependence upon it increases, the less we tend to know about it.
And I “blame” three different actors in perpetuating this trend: SaaS, Apple, and human laziness. I’ll quickly deal with the third one first: it’s probably not an overtly controversial claim that human beings are, if given the opportunity, lazy. I won’t delve into the arguments as to why this might be the case (which could make an interesting discussion by itself), but simply acknowledge this fact as a clear causal factor in the trend of technological illiteracy I’m rallied against.
The next actor I’d like to detail is SaaS, which stands for “Software As A Service.” It’s a very popular trend in computing and technology right now: abstract your business needs from the technical problem. Why pay a team of engineers to run your email server when Google or Microsoft can do it 10X better for less money? Technology brings to bear tremendous opportunities for efficiencies of scale, and I’d be disingenuous if I didn’t state my agreement with the majority of those benefits.
But while a business itself might be better off abstracting the technology away and just focusing on the business side of things (as they should), perhaps the unforeseen consequence of that transference is a drop in the technical literacy of the “representatives” of the business or organization. Sticking with the democracy illustration, when even the Representatives and Senators lack the appropriate understanding and practicing of the democratic process after having “outsourced” such tasks to some third party, is it even reasonable to assume that they will be suitable agents to act on behalf of the electorate?
In the technology world, SaaS (and related acronyms PaaS, IaaS) relate largely to the “cloud computing” movement. The “cloud” itself isn’t the problem; it’s the abstracting of the technology to the point where subject matter experts who once participated in a community of similar skills have become obsoleted by proprietary services that are offered not as technologies to customize, build upon, or tinker with, but pre-packaged bundled services that require no technical understanding whatsoever (or very little). While such situations create a valuable business opportunity for the service provider, it nullifies the collaborative and competitive pressures between technology providers and their technically-literate users.
The final actor in this trend of technological illiteracy is, somewhat counter-intuitively, Apple. And I say this as a long-time fan of Apple products. But what Apple has been so incredibly good at doing – making devices and services that are simple, intuitive, and reliable: “it just works” – has formed an ideal model for how to abstract the technological from the devices and services that rely upon those technologies.
Granted, Apple is selling to individual consumers as its primary (and some might argue only) target market where the approach makes perfect sense. But because they have been so darned good at it, their model of abstracting the technical from the end product has been aped by a large number of other technology companies. More or less. I don’t want to overstate Apple’s role in this larger technological illiteracy trend, but they’re perhaps the best example I can identify.
“Why are you hating on Apple?” you ask. I’m really not. It’s more along the lines of the “consumerization” of IT that has empowered consumers with devices that render obsolete or unneeded a vast swath of traditional IT infrastructure. At the same time, however, it has also removed the only “middle man” between the technology provider and the “end user” that has any way of understanding and being technically literate enough to be informed about the services provided.
This is not meant to be an apologetic for IT workers (even being one myself). But it is a disturbing trend where the technologically literate “geeks” are becoming less important for everyone else to have around (you needed one to set up your PC in 1999, but anyone can set up an iPhone on his or her own) yet there is not a general literacy about technology that is replacing those geeks. It is incredibly exciting to see technology progress and enable us all to do so much more, but without the underlying understanding and technical literacy necessary to be an ‘informed techzian” we become one-dimensional consumers of technology, not participatory users of technology.
I hope I’m wrong about all this. Perhaps next post will be a counter-argument against myself.