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Machines aren’t “bad”
but they are very stupid

March, 1999

disponibile anche in Italiano

  Giancarlo Livraghi
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Since the beginning of modern industrial technology, two centuries ago, literature (not only science fiction) has been painting all sorts of catastrophic scenarios. Machines, they imagine, will take over and reduce us in slavery. To this day, we can feel the echo of those ideas in opinions and attitudes that reflect an irrational fear of any form of technology. But I think the problems we are facing are quite different.

We haven’t seen, and it’s unlikely that we shall ever see, “intelligent” self-replicating machines running the world and reducing human beings to cattle. What’s making our life difficult is not the intelligence of machines. It’s quite the contrary. Machines are essentially stupid – and more and more complicated. Often complexity makes them less reliable, maintenance and repairs are more difficult. One doesn’t need to use a computer to run every day into a mess caused by some poorly conceived, or badly applied, technology.

Are the machines to be blamed? I don’t think so. The cause of problems is always human error. Machines carry out repetitive pre-defined tasks. If they don’t do it properly the blame is on whoever designs them badly, uses them in the wrong way or sells them promising things that they can’t do.

What does this have to do, someone could ask, with doing business in the net or generally being online? A lot, I think. Because we have fallen into a trap and we should get out of it. We should not expect the impossible from technology. We should not use tools and systems just because they are available (or in fashion) but choose and tailor them to our company's strategies and objectives. This is so obvious that it sounds silly to even say it; but if we look at the way technologies are chosen and used we see this unbelievable upside-down approach, where tools prevail on objectives and content, mechanical routines take priority over human needs. The results would be quite funny if they weren't disastrous.

I am pleased to quote once again one of the best writers on this subject. This is what Gerry McGovern said in his Cash Registers article on February 15, 1999.

Cash registers are great. You get a cash register and you’re in business. Cash registers are magic. They are a license for printing money.

Few question that the internet has suffered from its fair share of hype. The magical word that has been setting the fires burning over the last year or so is “ecommerce.” For some, ecommerce has taken on almost religious connotations. Every time the word is mentioned, people stand back in awe.

Much of the surrounding language to ecommerce is very mechanical and functional. You get the impression that all you have to do is implement your database, your payment system and your customer tracking software, and you will have got your license to print money.

It's not like that, I’m afraid. In a traditional commerce setting you take for granted the cash register. If you go to a supermarket and the cash register isn’t working, you’ll become very frustrated. If you go again the next week and you find the same problem, then it is unlikely that you will return again. Generally, however, choosing the supermarket or store you shop in is not down to what type of cash register they have. It’s down to product range, customer service, value for money, etc.

Too much ecommerce and too many ecommerce vendors are focused on selling the benefits of the hardware and software. It’s not about that. It’s about marketing, sales, customer service. It’s about offering the product the customer wants in the way they want it.

The internet is still a strange world. There are many who have turned it into a world of fantasy, where the first sign of reality is either jumped on or sends them running scared. “Ecommerce, ecommerce,” is being sung like some mantra, the belief being that all you have to do is say the word enough and bucketfuls of money will flow.

It’s not like that. I would bet that there are many ecommerce websites out there that are hurting in their attempt to deliver on the impossible promise. That’s not to say that there isn’t a business to be made on the internet. But it won’t be made from cash registers and “ecommerce.” It will be made just like it has always been made – from serving the customer.

In other words: the tail is wagging the dog. The problems that we face every day in defining online strategies would be solved much more easily if we started from the head instead of the tail. But that needs patience – and use of a precious resource that no technology can replace: gray matter.

On this subject see also:
A train to Mars
Technology and service
Hype and disappointment
The saucepan and the hammer
The power of stupidity

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