When my wife and I were expecting our first child, we attended childbirth classes together, and the instructor mentioned one tidbit of knowledge that piqued my curiosity:
The more medical intervention you have, the more at risk you are for requiring additional medical intervention.
In other words, it’s a snowball effect. The more you have, the more of the same it takes to manage it, which only requires more yet.
Many years (and children) later, I still think about that and wonder, “Do we also find this concept at play when it comes to technology?” Well, it’s a theory I’ve been wrestling with since that first childbirth class, trying to come up with a definition and explanation. The best term I could come up with was Self-Perpetuating Technology Dependency, which roughly means that the more technology you adopt or use, the more technology you have to adopt, or learn to use, to manage it. In essence, the technology itself creates the need for more technological intervention. And, like medical intervention, it becomes a compounding cycle.
I’m sure those in the Information Technology industry have projections about how many persons it takes to staff and mange the technology they acquire and maintain (and the additional software and systems to monitor the technology as well), so I’m assuming this isn’t a totally new concept. But those in IT live and breathe technology. What about those that don’t? What about the new users and those who are a bit more distanced from the daily ingestion of technology? What might Self Perpetuating Technology Dependency (SPTD) mean for them?
In my experiences helping new adopters of technology, the #1 effect I find is that they don’t realize what they’re getting in to. In short, they aren’t prepared for the commitment adopting new technology will require, not only for the initial learning/adoption (which can be expected) but also on-going maintenance. For once the technology is adopted into the user’s life, that technology-dependent user will find himself/herself also needing to be responsible for the changes brought about by the inevitable upgrades, integrations, and obsolescence of the original technology. Now those of you paying attention will note that’s not yet a cycle. That’s merely lifespan. But here’s where the self-perpetuating part comes in. Have you noticed that those who develop the technology we use often also introduce technology-based solutions to help manage it? Said a different way, technology will require attention for maintenance and improvement at some point, which is frequently solved by applications of more technology. Now repeat, and you have a self-feeding cycle.
In the short time I’ve been pondering SPTD, I’ve realized that once technology is initially introduced, and more technology solutions are next introduced to help manage the original technology, it causes an up-and-down wave-like effect on a scale of complexity (for the users). As technology is introduced, users most often have to learn to deal with new concepts. Inevitably, someone builds more technology or technological capability on top of the original technology, making the complexity even greater. This continues until, eventually, someone resolves all the complexity with a single, overarching technology. If the type of technology lives long enough, this can repeat.
Want an example? Take a look at how user-recordable CDs became common technology. I remember well the days when “burning” a CD was a huge deal, and you had to know a fair amount about what you were doing to get the desired result without blowing your investment on that expensive little gold disc. Eventually, the recording devices (“burners”) and media (CD-Rs) became less expensive and the software a little more geared toward consumers, but you still had to know a bit about how the discs were burned as well as the formatting limitations and parameters. Now, of course, practically every computer has a recording drive for CDs and/or DVDs, and the operating systems all natively support burning. All the complexity has been resolved. CD-burning (for the average user) is almost as simple as using an old floppy disk.
Another example? How about digital media… managing digital photos or digital music files. In the early days of digital cameras, you could shoot digital photos, but copying those files to your hard drive and organizing, managing, archiving and displaying them was pretty much a manual process. Today, how many photo management systems and pieces of (often free) software are available to make this job “easy?” The same with digital music. MP3 files… remember the days converting (“ripping”) those CDs and organizing files before iTunes? The list goes on and on. Surf the web? Now you need anti-virus and a firewall. Have e-mail? You need spam and phishing protection. But…
Swap the “I know how all this works and I choose to accept all the new technology inventions that make my previous adoptions easier/safer” hat for the “I know nothing about what’s coming next, I only know the current technology…and not all that well. Why do I need the next thing?” hat. One can see how this cycle gets to be a bit much for new users, many of whom just wanted to be able to get into sending e-mail to a distant friend, taking digital photos of grandchildren, or researching genealogy on the Web.
So, SPTD… real, fake, irrelevant, bad term? Regardless of what I call it, I’m convinced it’s an unrealized factor in the difficulty new technology users face. What do you think? Take a moment to put on the “I know nothing/I have no technology experience” hat and decide for yourself.
Author’s note: As I finished writing this post, I discovered that Don Norman recently posted an essay (Simplicity Is Not the Answer) which includes a discussion (and illustration) about the complexity of a product increasing as the number of features does also. While not exactly the same concept, it struck me as being a similar enough discussion of technology complexity to include a link.
Update (9-21-09): Don has another post on Infrastructure Design that relates to this topic, as well, including: “Norman’s law: The number of hours per day spent maintaining our equipment doubles every 18 months.” Good stuff. Check it out.