What it is: Technology can solve technological problems. They can never solve social problems.
Three engineers in Chile have created a bicycle design called the Yerka, which includes a built-in anti-theft mechanism. Instead of wrapping a cable around your bike and locking it, the Yerka lets you partially dismantle the bike frame itself to use as a locking mechanism. Thieves typically steal bikes by cutting the cable or breaking the lock, but if they do that on a Yerka, they’ll damage the bicycle frame, rendering the bike unusable.
While this is an ingenious solution to deal with bicycle thieves, it still doesn’t avoid the problem of thieves picking the lock. The Yerka solves the problem of preventing thieves from cutting cables, but it can’t solve the problem of thieves stealing the bike anyway through opening the lock. As a result, the Yerka only partially solves the problem of bicycle thieves, but can’t reduce it completely.
The problem of the Yerka is a problem of relying solely on technology it solve social problems. The best way to stop bicycle thieves is to eliminate the incentive to steal a bike in the first place. In Japan, they ingrain the idea of honesty so much into their citizens that stealing something is literally unthinkable through most of Japan. That right there eliminates most crimes of theft right there, far more effectively than any lock or punishment could ever do.
In the computer world, people still think technology can solve social problems. The Los Angeles school district recently wasted money and time trying to shove iPads in the hands of every student, as if having an iPad would magically improve education. It can definitely help, but relying on technology to solve an education problem can only partially solve the problem, but a partially solved problem still ins’t a solved problem. As a result, technology is never the answer.
The computer world also thinks that making computers easier to use requires teaching users how to use different user interfaces. Any user interface, no matter how bizarre, is easy to use if you know how it works. Any user interface is confusing, no matter how easy it is to use, if you don’t know what to do. There is no such thing as a perfect user interface. There’s only better and worse user interfaces. In general, the better user interfaces are ones that require the fewest steps to achieve a task. Offering half a dozen different ways to accomplish the same task doesn’t make the user interface easier to use, nor does offering popup tooltips or icons scattered among tabs (like the Microsoft Office Ribbon) help. The goal is to make each task take the fewest amount of steps possible, so burying commands in multiple Ribbon tabs is just partially the answer, but never the complete answer.
Computer security is another field where people rely on technology (encryption, anti-virus programs, firewalls, etc.) to protect their data. Technology is partially the solution, but a much larger solution is the users themselves and the thieves themselves. Eliminate the incentive for thieves to steal and you can ignore every other security solution. Teach users to practice good security habits and that’s far more effective than buying the latest firewall.
In short, technology is only the answer to technological problems. For everything else, technology is just part of the solution but can never be the whole solution. The next time someone promises that technology will solve all your problems, ask yourself if your problem is a technological problem. If so, then technology can solve all your problems.
However, if your problem is more than technology, more technology won’t solve your problem. It can help, but it can’t solve it. If you’re relying on technology to solve all your problems, you’ll never be happy or satisfied. The moment you realize that technology can’t solve social, emotional, or psychological problems, then you’ll be on the right track to using technology as a tool to a solution, but never the entire solution in itself.