What Happens When Hot Technology Meets Cold Assumptions?


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Some topics are ephemeral. Like fireworks, they rise, sizzle, then pop. On January 7 this year, Christie 2016 was a hot topic. Less so on January 8th, after the BridgeGate story put a damper on the New Jersey governor’s presidential aspirations. Others topics have a longer life. Here are just a few recent examples:

Build or buy? A housing market dilemma
How to find innovative solutions to customer problems
Is coffee healthy?

Assumptions, the topic, also has enormous staying power. Which assumptions are good? Which are bad? Should people make assumptions at all?

Ever since the invention of language, assumptions have inspired debate. I totally understand why. Assumptions are part of what makes people unique. And when specific assumptions don’t match those of others, life gets interesting, sometimes tense. As things change, it follows that assumptions change, too. That’s actually wishful thinking. People hold on to assumptions with a tenacity that rivals the gravitational force of a black hole.

In a book published in 1992, Neil Postman, a cultural critic, set out to pry some hardened assumptions loose. The book, titled Technopoly, had a controversial premise. Postman argued that America was dominated by people with an unquestioning love for technology who were too myopic to recognize any deleterious effects. In Postman’s view, whenever technology solves one problem, new problems—some potentially serious—can and will result.

In Technopoly, Postman took issue with six commonly held assumptions about technology:

1. The primary goal of human labor and thought is efficiency.
2. Technology is superior to human judgment.
3. Human judgment cannot be trusted because of laxity, ambiguity, and complexity.
4. Subjectivity is an obstacle to clear thinking.
5. What cannot be measured either does not exist or is of no value.
6. Affairs of people are best guided and conducted by experts (or algorithms).

It’s understandable that we feel tightly bonded to some, if not all, of these assumptions. We’ve watched how technology has contributed to great advances medical science, including mapping the human genome. We’ve seen how Big Data teases out extraordinary insights from terabytes of digital exhaust—a task that eclipses human capabilities. As technology providers, we have experienced how technology—especially our technology—can create wealth and lasting competitive advantage. And we have witnessed fast-growth tech companies spawned from an edgy idea scratched out on a paper napkin.

Today, in an article about Jeopardy phenom Arthur Chu, The Washington Post reported, “Chu’s strategy seems to fit into a larger cultural pattern: Now that everything can be measured, quantified and reduced to statistical probabilities, there’s no space for romance or instinct anymore. A scientific formula predicts hit songs; Big Data determine who directs our favorite shows. And all of these approaches have been adopted because they work.” Chu, who has been called ‘ruthless,’ just became Jeopardy’s third-highest earner.

But Postman questioned the wisdom of blindly assuming technology’s capacity to improve the world we live in. In a 1996 interview, Postman said that “his solution for technopoly would be to give students an education in the history, social effects and psychological biases of technology, so they may become adults who ‘use technology rather than being used by it.’” Postman died in 2003, but his concerns keep coming to light. When I read about NSA surveillance, data breaches, drone warfare, and greenhouse gas emissions, I feel some ambivalence about our greatest technological breakthroughs, and wonder if, again, we’ve let the inmates run the asylum.

Today, nearly every marketing message for a technology product or service depends on one or more of the assumptions Postman called out. We use them reflexively in our sales conversations, anticipating that they will resonate. But when we say, “We provide solutions,” we’re only telling part of the story. And when we put full trust in technology’s abilities to produce positive results, we fail to ask questions as simple as “what could go wrong?” or “Where are the boundaries?” When creating killer content, “the sky is the limit” has a much more pleasing ring.

With the adoption of every new technology, something is always given up, surrendered, or sacrificed. When personal computing software enabled multi-tasking, we gained productivity, but diminished our capacity for reflection and along with it, empathy. When social media became popular, we found new ways to create relationships and transparency, but surrendered our personal privacy. Through technology, we have created great value and wealth, and resolved some thorny challenges. But we will never get finished fixing the outcomes of our solutions.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


  1. My 12 year old has terrific eye to thumb coordination developed from video games on the Nintendo DS, PC and now iPad, yet my continual fear is that his creative imagination will be stunted. The game designers have thought of everything and everything he does is a variation on their ideas, even when “creating” characters.

    Of course, James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger had the coolest take on technology run amok.


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