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Jun 8, 2019
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When Technology Fails Us

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We’re in a brave new world when it comes to our usage of technology. Over the past two decades, advances in both consumer and business technology have completely transformed the way we live, interact with our friends and family, and do our job.

There’s no doubt that technology has made your life better in several ways. The convenience of smartphones and mobile devices have brought information and accessibility to new levels. Many jobs are now more painless and efficient due to the aid of technological devices.

But sometimes, technology isn’t quite as unalloyed a benefit. Periodically, you might find that technology fails in its intended purpose, or else there may be an unintended side effect producing an unexpected lousy outcome. Fortunately, these occurrences tend to be rare. But they’re a sobering reminder that technological development isn’t without stumbling blocks, and isn’t always unreservedly good.

The Case of the Delayed Text Message

One instructive instance of technology going wrong was the case of Glen Kraft, a truck driver who worked for Nestle. As you probably know, the trucking industry now takes texting while driving extremely seriously. And Kraft was terminated in early 2019 for texting while his truck was in motion.

Kraft claimed that he did no such thing – According to Kraft, he’d pulled over by the side of the road to read and respond to the text he’d received. He said that poor internet service had delayed his text message, meaning that it had arrived on his supervisor’s phone after a delay when Kraft had gotten back on the road.

At first, this might seem like a weak excuse by a guilty party to save his job, and you might be inclined to disbelieve. But digging deeper into the story, it looks like Kraft was indeed telling the truth. After an internal investigation, Nestle offered Kraft his job back. Kraft, who had taken up employment with a company for which he’d previously driven, declined the offer.

All the facts in the case point to Glen Kraft telling the truth, and Nestle overreacting. But it’s even tricky to fault Nestle too much in this case. On the surface, just looking at the time stamps, it appears that Kraft sent the text in question while driving. If Nestle made a mistake, it was trusting too much in technology.

Now, a multimillion-dollar revenue company faces the possibility of further legal action should Kraft choose to pursue it. And meanwhile, Kraft has had to endure the stress and upheaval of being fired from a job and having to find new employment, as well as trying to clear his name.

This all stems from a breakdown in technology. In this specific instance, most text messages send promptly. We are conditioned to believe that when we receive a text is only moments after the other party sent it. But poor internet service can slow down that process every once in a rare while. Because we’re so used to texts transferring promptly, it catches us off guard when the technology fails.

Dangers of Relying on Technology Too Much

Nestle doubtless wishes they’d relied a little less heavily on technology and a little more on common sense and respect in the case of Glen Kraft. And there’s probably a lesson here for the world at large when it comes to our reliance on technology.

In theory, a programmed script is far less error-prone than a human being. All a computer program can do is execute what’s in the code – It can never make a ‘mistake’ in the way that people do. This is one of the big premises behind our push to automate tasks and use technology to assist us in our jobs and personal lives.

There’s nothing wrong with the idea of using technology to make lives better, but sometimes that drive toward change comes without full acknowledgment that while computers can’t make ‘mistakes,’ breakdowns and failures at a number of places along the hardware/software/network chain can result in problems.

A mechanized, computerized system can make mistakes, in short. That’s not to say that we should throw them all out, by any means. But it does mean we need to be cautious in implementing technologically-driven systems, and realistic about the potential problems they may cause.

Defining a Technological Failure

Glen Kraft’s case is an example of technology failing that’s pretty easy to understand and classify. The system didn’t work properly, causing a misunderstanding. And there are other examples of technology visibly and failing out there over the years.

The picture becomes a little more interesting when considering some murkier areas. It might be a little more debatable whether technology has failed or not, but often, the implications are much more significant.

For example, if you’ve followed the news at all, you’ve probably seen numerous stories about data breaches. Companies like Yahoo, Equifax, eBay, Chase, Sony, and Home Depot are just a few of the companies who have had their data compromised by hackers.

As you can see, this is a diverse list – A bank, a credit reporting agency, an online auction site, a home products retailer, and an email and online content provider. The point is, your data isn’t safe in any corporate setting.

It might be hard at first to see this as a technology failure in the same sense as Glen Kraft’s text. After all, this is a malicious action, not a mechanical accident. But on a larger scale, the lack of security and helplessness in the face of hacking and online intrusions can be seen as a massive failure of the model of storing customer information digitally.

Aggregating all your customer’s data on a digital database connected to the internet offers several benefits. That data can be accessed quickly and accurately by any authorized member of your company to assist customers, fulfill orders, and generally cause the business to run smoothly. And that collected data can lead to powerful analytics to improve the company’s performance and give consumers what they want. All of that sounds fantastic and light years better than the old system.

However, there’s a dark underbelly to all that progress and efficiency. As a consumer, would you accept all that improvement if the price you’re paying is a chance that a hacker will take control of your email account? How about taking control of your bank account, or using your credit card without your permission? What percentage chance is low enough that the tradeoff is worth it?

For many people, the answer would be that any chance of having their bank account hacked is too high. But the system as currently constructed is unable to protect its data well enough to ensure its security whether you’d call that a technological failure, a system built on a rotten foundation or the cost of doing business probably depends on your perspective.

What can’t be denied is that the world of technology over the past couple of decades is replete with similar examples, including:

  • Companies are secretly collecting and selling data about their consumers to third-party advertisers or other businesses.
  • The Galaxy Note 7, a smartphone which would catch fire without warning.
  • An airport in England was having to completely shut down its operation due to suspicious, unknown drones flying in the area.
  • Theranos, a start-up company which promised to revolutionize the blood-testing industry with a high tech solution which later proved to be fraudulent.
  • An air traffic control system which had to be shut down, causing frequent delays, due to insufficient computer memory.

This list could be far, far more extensive. The above is only scratching the surface when it comes to instances when technology has failed or caused an unexpected lousy outcome in some way.

To be clear, none of this is saying you should abandon technology or that we need to go back to the ‘old ways.’ For every one of these stories, there’s another where technological advancement has saved lives, or has made a process less dangerous or more efficient, or has brought a new quality of life to people.

But all those good things can tend to make us blind to the risks and dangers of plunging headfirst into embracing technology. There are a few patterns to be seen in a lot of these technological failures which can teach us if we’re open to learning.

In many cases, there’s a tendency to trust too much in the technological system, to the point where critical thinking skills aren’t part of the picture. Go back to Glen Kraft and his text message. Which is more likely – That an otherwise-dependable employee who previously followed the rules decided now to break them? Or that the text message had been delayed, something that you’ve probably rarely observed if you’ve texted much?

The other common thread seems to be not thinking through some of the unintended consequences of implementing or releasing new technology. Take the case of the drones shutting down an airport. We allow consumers to purchase incredibly mobile flying machines that can be controlled from incredible distances. It’s only a matter of time before someone uses them in a menacing or threatening way, and we’re not prepared to react.

The first step in trying to become better at implementing technology is acknowledging the stark fact – Technology will fail from time to time. Sometimes in a minor way, sometimes spectacularly. We should be spending as much time anticipating and mitigating these failures as we are dreaming of the possibilities and benefits.

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