Several weeks ago, and perhaps it was longer, one commenter made the astute observation that technology magnifies everything, both the good and the bad. I think that’s definitely true, but, based on reflection and more recent observation, I have the definite feeling that it magnifies some things more than others – and incompetence is one of them.
What’s the basis for this conclusion? Human nature… and the fact that incompetent actions have a multiplier effect, and when that multiplier effect is magnified by technology, incompetence has a disturbing tendency to spiral into ever greater incompetence because, at least at present, most computer systems are designed to carry out instructions with great efficiency and speed, and if the instructions or the programming are flawed, the magnification of difficulties or ineptness can quickly result in enormous problems.
The great financial meltdown and the ensuing recession from which we still may not have emerged is one very good example. Without computerization and sophisticated software, the development and management [such as it was] of securitized derivatives, CDOs and the like, simply would not have been possible. Add to that the consolidation of the banking and mortgage industries, and their centralization with decisions being made by a few, again a situation not possible without high technology. Follow up with sophisticated and high tech profit models, and top off with nano-second securities trading technology. At that point, we had a highly concentrated and centralized structure where bad decision-making, a lack of competence in understanding what those computer models meant, and a poor understanding, if any understanding, of some basic economics could combine to bring down the entire economy. And that is exactly what happened.
The lithium-ion battery fiasco with Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, which could easily have become a disaster, is another example of how technology misused, I venture, can multiply incompetence. Several aviation battery specialists have made the observation that lithium-based batteries have a tendency to overheat if, first, the individual batteries are too large, and, second, if their architecture [i.e., the way in which they are arranged and interconnected] is not well-designed, and, third, if they are overcharged, although so far the third condition does not appear to be a factor.
There are also innumerable simpler forms of technologically multiplied incompetence with often disastrous results, such as the simple combination of cell-phone texting with the operation of an automobile, particularly when the operator’s skills are marginal, in the case of teenage drivers or of tired or distracted drivers. Or the 80 to 100 car pile-ups that seemly happen routinely anymore because of the combination of incompetent driving [driving too fast for the conditions] in fog or snow. Somehow, I doubt that there were ever hundred-carriage pile-ups. And how many product recalls have we experienced because of manufacturing or design failures multiplied by the technology of mass production?
Incompetence in data-processing/computer systems is another area where a small incompetence can be multiplied a million-fold. As I noted in an earlier blog, Delta failed to renew its online website security system, and for two days thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of customers could not make reservations. A software error in the Utah Medicaid system allowed hackers access to personal information of over 700,000 thousand people and the Social Security numbers of more than 280,000 individuals.
Now, the optimists will say, “But look what good technology does.” I’d agree, but technology’s greatest asset, these days, seems to its efficiency in replacing people, and cutting costs, far more than multiplying benefits. Yet those people, especially good competent people, are, for lack of a better term, often the circuit-breakers who stop the magnification of incompetence. So, at present, technological systems are optimized for, if you will, magnification of whatever they do. That means doing more with fewer people and less oversight and supervision, since one of the areas of employment that’s taken the biggest hit is middle management… and that includes people who can actually solve problems.
Just look at computerized telephone answering systems. If your inquiry doesn’t fit in the proper “box,” it may take what seems like forever to get an answer – if you can at all… and that’s another form of incompetence, magnified by technology. Now… I may be overcritical, but, all in all, I’m seeing incompetence and outright criminality magnified far more than benefits.
What about you?