Does Technology "Suck"?

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Last week, I was having lunch with an old friend. We worked together many years ago building some pretty cool technology at a very large financial services firm. Each of us has over 20 years in the technology industry. He has continued to manage infrastructure, and is doing some pretty impressive advanced infrastructure management. Both of us have seen the big company and the startup, and both of us have experience a broad range of technologies - consumer and business and enterprise; infrastructure and applications; hardware and software - and we both truly love technology and the changes it brings to society.

So imagine my surprise when he said: "All technology sucks."

But as we discussed it and I thought about it more deeply, technology, because it seems so magical, actually does, well, create difficulties.

Think about the very basic telephone. For decades, we assumed "dialtone service," which meant that when we picked up the phone, the dial tone would always be there, whether from AT&T, Bell Canada, British Telecom, Telstra or Bezeq. Of course, under the covers, telco engineers and managers exerted enormous efforts and spend great treasure to provide us with that dialtone service. Part of that stability was a near-complete lack of change. From the removal of the switchboard operator in the 1960s through the launch of touch-tone dialing in the late 1970 through the 1980s, nothing visible changed in telephone service. Nearly 20 years, and nothing visible changed!

In today's technology world, that would be unthinkable. From the first commercial cellphone service 20 years ago to LTE today, from those first brick phones to an iPhone or Moto X, the progress has been amazing.

Of course, the telco research arms, along with a few other labs like Xerox PARC, were producing great advancements; they just weren't deploying them at any great speed.

We now live in a society where nearly every advance can be and often is brought to the market. The speed of change brings great benefits, but comes at some price to stability: we have come to expect dropped calls, misbehaving servers, crashing Web applications, and the infamous Blue Screen of Death (BSOD) on Windows laptops.

So our technology works as expected 90% of the time (probably quite a bit more) and fails 10% of the time. Given the choice, almost everyone would prefer an iPhone with its apps and LTE connectivity that works 90% of the time and fails 10% of the time over an old rotary line phone that works 100% of the time. Our lives are better that way.

But what we really want is an iPhone  with its apps and LTE Internet connectivity that works... 100% of the time. And when we fall into the failure zone - as we inevitably do - we complain that "technology sucks". We, in turn, press our providers to give us more and more of that missing 10%. They, in turn, press their engineers and managers, who work long and hard to solve obscure problems that will budge the needle.

Most of the time, it is a fascinating challenge, but sometimes, when the pressure builds, when that 10% is at just the wrong moment, as my friend said, "all technology sucks."