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The paradox of technology

Chris Stein, ECSSA President

Almost every day, in our highly connected and device-dependent lives, we hear about an “old” process or activity that has been “upgraded” to a new, electronic form. In the current climate of tablet-mania, this frequently involves taking a process or activity and “gadgetising” it. The phrase “there’s an app for that” highlights this phenomenon, that we seem to be obsessed with literally having an app (or a website, which actually is also an app) for everything.

In this flurry of one-“app”manship I’m not certain that we really critically evaluate whether “going digital” with everything truly adds value to our lives and to the processes involved, and whether it simplifies (as we claim it does) or complicates our lives, whether it helps us manage or frustrates us, whether it makes our business processes more efficient or more wasteful.

In his writings on the design of everyday things, cognitive scientist Donald Noman first described an apparently paradoxical phenomenon associated with new and evolving technology. Norman observed that, at first, new technology is introduced and implemented in designs that help us and that seem to be big on usefulness and small on complexity. You may well sneer as you remember now the first of a range of electronic devices that you ever used (computers, cellular phones etc.) but you cannot deny that you were impressed by how much they changed your life and how apparently simple they were to use with apparently little experience.

This comfortable state of affairs, says Norman, does not last forever. The ease of use and utility experienced with new technology makes it popular, and spurs its designers and manufacturers to make it “better” by adding more features. This tends to enhance complexity more than usefulness, especially if the new features are not well designed. The end result is a technology that was uncomplicated and useful, becoming less useful and more difficult to use and complicating life instead of simplifying it. The U-shaped curve of complexity over time, starting high then decreasing and finally ending high, is what Norman refers to as the paradox of technology. That the same technology can simplify and complicate life, depending on how it is designed and developed over time. Norman cites such simple examples as the wrist watch and radio to illustrate his point that our desire to simplify often simply leads to frustration.

Does this paradox sound familiar to you? I’m sure you can think of some emergency care-related examples that would apply. Perhaps a simulation manikin that has so many complicated features that you don’t even use half of them? Perhaps an electronic patient care record application that seemed like such a good idea, but that now seems so complex to use, manage and maintain that you wish you could go back to paper records? Or a monitor that does so much that you can’t figure out how to do simple things with it most of the time?

Technology undeniably has the potential to improve life, and even radically alter it, for the better. However it is not all good, as the paradox explained above suggests. You may argue that the potential disadvantages of advancing technology and its application to everything we do are offset by the advantages, by the good that it does. So what if we struggle with a device every now and again, or are frustrated by how complicated an apparently simple process involving new technology has become? The dark side of technology is that it always costs us, and frequently costs us a lot. In time and effort, but more importantly in money. The newspapers (which we read these days on a tablet of course) regularly tell us of obscene wastefulness that occurs in the pursuit of technology implementation – either because glitzy projects are never completed or because the technology involved fails because it is too complex or unreliable to support and enhance the processes it was supposed to.

I often wonder how much better things could be if that wasted money were spent on simpler, more reliable and less complex solutions that didn’t have to involve an electronic device. The challenge that we face is to try and be more selective about how we use technology, and what we use it for rather than throw a gadget at every problem. Successfully applied technology can be a life and game changer, but technology poorly applied not only frustrates use, it wastes our valuable resources and often sets us further back than if we had not even contemplated using it at all.

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