Motion: This house believes that if the promise of technology is to simplify our lives, it is failing

Defending the motion: Mr Richard Szafranski, Partner in Toffler Associates

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Defending the motion: Mr Richard Szafranski, Partner in Toffler Associates

Against the motion: Mr John Maeda, President Elect of the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD)




Standing back, we now can be fairly certain that the science and engineering that enabled humans to create today's engines of industrialisation, electrification, physics, medicine, genetics and the appliances of the information age also added significant complexity to our lives. Technology warmed the planet, added pollutants to the atmosphere and oceans, affected life forms by changing the background magnetic field (including adding increased extremely low-frequency radiation), enabled nuclear weapons and created thousands of chemical compounds that can help or hurt life. One cannot conclude that the convergent effects—social, environmental, political, economic, legal, psychological—of these technological developments simplified living or our lives. Technology has failed to simplify our lives.

Coping with the challenges caused by a warming planet will not be simple. Knowing the health effects—the effects on humans and other living organisms—of various pollutants and combinations of pollutants and appropriately dealing with them will not be simple. Understanding the biological consequences of changed magnetic fields and increased point and area sources of radiation is not uncomplicated. The problems associated with nuclear weapons' proliferation are only less complex than the problems that would arise from the use of such weapons. And it becomes increasingly difficult to assay the interactions, the lag times and the health consequences of the chemicals we ingest, even those we consume intentionally. Simpler lives? No.

Dealing with any one of these challenges is not simple; they are multi-dimensional and have converged and co-exist. "Technology"—shorthand for the fruits of science and engineering—and its convergent unintended and intended consequences have complicated our lives.

Take some familiar but trivial examples. The technologies that enable mass customisation, the internet and wireless devices and their applications, but a small sample, cause humans two problems that complicate our lives immensely. First, over-choice. Second, surplus complexity. Over-choice describes the human response to alternatives and variations so numerous, so potentially satisfying and so complex that humans can no longer decide easily. "Surplus complexity" is unnecessary and unwanted complexity.

We—hundreds of millions of us and growing—embrace the very technologies that make our lives and our relationships more difficult and fill many of our waking moments with activity. We love—to the point of gluttony—to communicate, play, invent, learn, imagine and acquire. Information technology has given us tools to do all of those anywhere and round the clock. We are awash in the benefits that high-bandwidth fixed and mobile wireless communications, email, text messages, pictures, games, data and information give us, including instant access to thousands of products. The seductive ease with which we can engage in any and all of those activities, or quests or endeavours makes it difficult and stressful to not be overwhelmed by choices. Choosing takes time and our time is not unlimited. Devices and applications that save us labour in one area may merely allow us, and sometimes seem to compel us, to invest labour in other areas.

We say or hear, "I must do my email tonight, or by tomorrow I'll have over 600 to read." We want to buy a pot. Search on "pottery" and get 254,000,000 results. We want to find the John Li we met at a conference. Search on "John Li" and get 8,600,000 results. Do I do email, narrow the searches, eat dinner, pick up my laundry or call a friend? Because technology has spawned numerous complex variations I must repeatedly go through the act of evaluating and choosing — a labour of deciding. Technology has imposed the encumbrance of over-choice on us.

Over-choice is made more likely and burdensome by the complexity resident in each of the choices that are presented to us. There are hundreds of choices within the seemingly simple one of getting a cellular telephone and choosing a provider and a plan. Some phones also are Pocket PCs with CDMA and GSM, video-players, music-players, web browsers, calculators and so forth. One must decide where and when the complexity becomes surplus. Choosing ring tones from among the surplus complexity evident in the thousands of tones available is almost unfathomable over-choice.

Businesses know that solutions to over-choice, on the one hand, and engineered surplus complexity, on the other, can produce revenue. Their solutions may complicate the problems. It may be that few consumers have or take the time to read a website's terms of services, privacy policy or licensing agreement before hitting "I agree." The willing or inadvertent disclosure of information about behaviour and the data bases that record past searches create the potential for precise marketing. Behavioural marketing, for example, uses data from multiple sources, including data in the public domain and data acquired by a target's past web searches, to push tailored products and services. More choices. When surplus complexity is engineered into a product—of a product's, say, 41 features, the consumer only wanted two—consumers pay for unnecessary and unused features. Unbundling is seen by some businesses or some industries as such radical customisation that it is priced prohibitively. We live in the multifaceted bundles that technology has enabled.

The system as a whole, the system we create and sustain and live in, now has so many and so complex separate parts that understanding consequential interactions, potential outcomes—intended and unintended—and long-term effects is more difficult than ever in human history. One might argue that the genesis of problems like over-choice and surplus complexity is in human frailty or human wants satisfied by technology, but, without technology, more simplicity would endure. Technology is the beneficial culprit that allowed us to do this.

One cannot conclude that humans making bad choices are the real culprit unless one ascribes to the unborn—past and future—the ability to choose. Technology, personified as defendant, could probably prove "I made no promises." Just so, but the issue under consideration is less any specific promise asserted than it was the promising possibilities of making our lives simpler that lured us, as we humans employed technology to solve problems and create opportunities.

It did not work.

Technology exists to advance and enhance our world in new ways. Sometimes it lets us add a new capability to our daily routine like the guilty pleasure of SMS-ing during a boring meeting. In other cases technology literally takes the pain away, as anyone with a successful hip replacement can attest. Adopting any technology is a conscious act of adding complexity to our lives. However while adding new complexities, a successful technology is able to at least dampen and at times completely remove the greater complexities that existed prior.

Fitting a hearing aid to your ear on a daily basis adds complexity, but the benefit of being able to hear significantly better makes life simpler. Keeping the fire of your Blackberry constantly lit drives you crazy, but your BB lets you be CEO while slipping away to attend your son's soccer game. Automobiles keep you stuck in traffic and expend excessive energy, but these same technologies can transport you to the mountains or beach for repose. When looking at your life overall, there should be no doubt that technology has simplified many aspects of your existence. It has given you options to live your life how you want and when you want in ways that were never before possible. And truly, what is more simple than being free?

The bad rap given to technologies today will be only temporary. Yes my wireless Bluetooth headset sometimes forgets that my iPhone exists even when they are only a millimeter apart. Yes a few months ago my computer crashed for the first time in three years and I lost all my data. Yes my laser printer and I will dance an odd lovers game of "I could have sworn I told you to print but you don't seem to notice me." But we are in a transitional period where technologies are brittle not because they are failing per se — they are just new and experimental. And yes, we are all the unlikely guinea pigs that are happier on some days than others. Do you think the people that first owned and drove automobiles lived untroubled lives? I think not, but the benefits likely outweighed any setbacks otherwise we would still be riding horses today.

Remember that computers did not really take off until less than ten years ago. They were these big, ugly, and clunky boxes with even bigger "TV sets" attached to them. Now within a size smaller than my fist a computer that is hundreds of times more powerful sits within my palm. And within a few months it will become twice as powerful. In the history of humankind, there have never been similar technological advances happening at the incredible rate of change today. The glitches are there because we are all explorers, and just haven't been told we are thus so.

Recognise simplicity as being about two goals realised simultaneously: the saving of time to realise efficiencies, and later wasting the time that you have gained on some humanly pursuit. Thus true simplicity in life is one part technology, and the other part away from technology. Much confusion lies today in the fact that technology has invaded many of our recreational activities such as music listening and video viewing. Thus as explorers in technology, we have ventured out of just the "got-to-have" categories of pacemakers and other life-saving necessities, into the "nice-to-have" categories of iPods and other life-styling gadgetry. Our thirst for exotic experiences in technology only pushes us further down the path of increasing unpredictability. Engaging new technologies is about embracing new inventions and the passion for cultural advancement — it is a game usually only reserved for the young that we can now play no matter how old we are.

We voluntarily let technology enter our lives in the infantile state that it currently exists, and the challenge is to wait for it to mature to something we can all be proud of. Patience is a virtue I am told, and I await the many improvements that lie ahead. To say that technology is failing to simplify our lives misses the point that in the past decade we have lived in an era of breakneck innovation. This pace is fortunately slowing and industries are retrenching so that design-led approaches can take command to give root to more meaningful technology experiences. There are advanced developments underway at MIT, CMU, and Stanford for improving user interfaces, data visualisation, network reliability, and energy management that will reduce the 10% of downsides we feel today compared with the 90% of upsides brought on by both life-saving and life-styling technologies.

The conveniences gained of extended life spans, click-to-buy anything off of the web, and even online dating are all concrete examples of enhancement that vastly simplify our lives. They make our lives more complex in addition: a longer life means more to think about, an online purchase can come in the wrong colour, and a virtual date can go awry. Do the positives outweigh the negatives? Often you will find that the answer is: Yes. When any newer technology is concerned, you are adopting the cause of innovation and as such should expect some turbulence along the way. In the near future we will see a renaissance in design-led technology developments that will reduce the bumpiness we currently experience to give way to simplicity every day. Technology will unite with design and the arts in unprecedented harmony such that not only will our lives be simplified, but more importantly satisfying.

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