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The stupidity
of technologies

May 2004

disponibile anche in italiano

  Giancarlo Livraghi
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A few truths are beginning to surface. One recent example... Jurgen Hubbert, the Daimler-Chrysler board member in charge of Mercedes, admitted publicly that the car industry has serious problems with electronic equipment. And when a company, such as his, tries to be innovative, things get worse. The concern is so deep that there are plans to set up a consortium of automotive manufacturers to rationalize applications and join forces to experiment and develop more reliable solutions.

The question is... what took them so long?  It’s been a known fact for several years (though rarely reported in mainstream media) that there are serious problems with electronics in motorcars. But carmakers (as well as other industries) have continued to add electronic devices without checking carefully enough what works and want doesn’t – and which applications can cause more problems than they were supposed to solve.

Basic car technologies haven’t changed in a century.. There have been talks about turbines and rotating pistons, etcetera, but the engines are based on the same concept and structure as over a hundred years ago. There are verified and functional alternatives, but we are still burning fossil fuels (see Hydrogen and the internet.)  Traction has moved from rear to front (or both) but it’s basicallystill the same four-wheel vehicle. Inflated tires were invented in 1888.

Those old technologies, over time, have been improved. Driving has become easier and (relatively) safer. Even electronics work reasonably well when they relate to functional, and extensively tested, applications. Though all, sometimes, make mistakes, in most cases industry knows how to manage design and manufacturing – as long as they are in the fields of its specific competence and experience.

Computerized design and engineering have helped to achieve considerable improvements in performance and reliability. But no competent manufacturer puts a new model on sale before extensive road testing. Sometimes recalls are necessary because a car (or some other product) turns out to be unsafe or unreliable, but those a are relatively rare cases.

It’s a different story when, in a competitive race to add a not always desirable abundance of accessories, a car is crammed with information or communication technologies that are not designed by its maker’s engineers, but by suppliers who suffer from an incurable tendency to promise what they don’t deliver – or offer “advanced” solutions without checking if they are adequately functional and manageable (or at all useful.)  Of course, when more gadgetry is added, more thing are likely to go wrong.

After a hasty and inconsiderate race forward in the wrong direction, the automotive industry (as well as others) is beginning to understand that it’s better to step back and re-discover the values of ergonomy.

An old cliché, that has been around for many years, says that «if cars worked like computers they would run at 500 miles an hour and would do a thousand miles with a gallon.»  But most people forget the second half: «... and they would blow up five times a day.»  Unfortunately this isn’t just a joke. There have been several accidents, some fatal, caused by inefficient applications of electronics in motorcars.

Of course it is possible to make ground vehicles that can run at 400 miles an hour. But it would be crazy to put them on the market, because there are no roads to fit such speeds – and only highly specialized pilots could know how to drive them.

In industrial applications the prevailing trend is to proceed with efficiency objectives – and when automatic production equipment doesn’t live up to quality standards most companies know how to step back to more reliable resources. But when it comes to information and communication technology most companies find themselves stepping out of their areas of competence – and into a confusing complexity of available tools.

It’s a proven fact that investments in ICT technologies without precise objectives and a clear idea of process don’t lead only to an enormous waste of money, but also to all sorts of organizational problems and loss of quality.

Of course it’s possible to make and use reliable computers and networks. In most cases the navigation systems of airplanes, electronic equipment in surgery, and other applications that put human lives directly at risk, have good levels of efficiency (and adequate backup.)  But there are many large systems that don’t work as well as they should.

Even in elaborate scientific and technical pursuits, such as space exploration, there have been several surprising accidents due to poorly conceived or applied technologies.

A “clever bomb” is a very stupid machine. It uses sophisticated navigation systems to reach a specific destination and then activates a device. It has no idea that by doing so it will self-destruct and blow to bits lots of things – including a number of human beings. It’s up to who conceived it, as well as those who use it, to make sure that it achieves the largest possible result with the least possible “collateral damage”.

In the daily use of electronics the consequences are much less dramatic, but they cause every day all sorts of problems that could be easily avoided if technologies were designed and applied to fit the needs of people and organizations. We are strangely accustomed to this disease. Most people seem to believe that that the inefficiencies of computer and network technologies are unavoidable – or that, when things don’t work, it’s their fault.

An industrial robot works better than a human being when it performs with repetitive precision a simple task. But when complex procedures are to be managed technologies are much less reliable.

Most people today, unless they are totally incompetent in this field, no longer speak of computers as “electronic brains”. But there is still a fairly widespread delusion that we can delegate thinking to machines.

It’s important to understand that machines are stupid. We should never expect them to be able to perform without human supervision. The reason why so many devices work poorly, and tend to get worse, isn’t a mischievous perversity of machines or of the abstruse codes that run them. It’s human stupidity.

It isn’t just nearsighted, but positively stupid, to develop technologies to fit the whims of programmers (or gee-whiz marketers) rather that the needs of all other people. And things get worse with the widespread habit of treating people as idiots, and forcing them into obedience, instead of encouraging (and helping) them to adjust technologies and procedures to their needs.

A machine works well, most of the time, when it’s designed in the simplest possible way to perform a precise task. Even a machine that does a variety of different things, such as a personal computer, would work much better if functions were kept separate and independent, with shared resources only when they are necessary – or really useful and convenient. Things would work much better also if each person, or organization, could install only those functions that it really needs – instead of being forced to operate in a clutter of unwanted, and often unknown, devices that interfere with each other and cause a lot of unnecessary trouble.

The technologies that were conceived thirty years ago to run the internet, and fifteen years ago for the world wide web, were basically efficient, reliable, open and transparent. They still are, and they still work. But on those sound foundations too much stuff has been added. Clumsily conceived and hastily built cathedrals, fragile and often unsafe, that suffer from the same diseases as the most widespread operating system for personal computers, with all its cumbersome applications.

To demolish that proliferation of useless clutter, irritating complications and unacceptable inefficiencies, we don’t need a bulldozer or a weed killer. The best medicine is a strong dose of practically applied common sense. And a firm determination to put the machines in the service of people, not vice versa.

An unusually bright headline in an Italian newspaper, La Repubblica, on April 14, 2004, called it “the long night of electronics”. For too many years we have been kept in that uncomfortable darkness – with more nightmares that we want or deserve.  Are we, at last, waking up?

Some other comments on this subject
The technology delusion
When technology becomes a nuisance
Squeezed bread and toasted lemon

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