Technology dependency: thoughts on Japan

March 18, 2011

Back in the 90s (before children, when I still had time to play games), friends and I used to play Command & Conquer until the wee hours of the morning. Usually, we played against each other or teamed up against the computer’s AI. One of our primary tactics was “take out the opponent’s power stations first.” With no electric power, virtually nothing else was possible. So keeping the opponent powerless was our prime directive. If we were successful, what  followed was a cascade of deteriorating abilities for the opponent. With no power, gun turrets weren’t functional, radar/recon didn’t work, and so forth. While existing infantry and mobile artillery could still operate, it was clear that every player in the game was heavily dependent upon electricity which could only be provided by his power stations.

In following Japan’s situation over the last week, it occurs to me that even expert C&C game players couldn’t have conceived such an awful situation leading to more destruction. As if the natural damage (from earthquake and tsunami) wasn’t horrible enough for our friends across the Pacific, the situation at Japan’s nuclear reactors adds a layer of frightening drama. Though their impacted reactors shut down automatically when the earthquake occurred, they needed cooling pumps to continue cooling down the reactor to a safe temperature. Unfortunately, flood waters soaked the backup generators, and so the cooling pumps couldn’t be powered. Without any ability to cool down, a meltdown was only a matter of time.

I’m by no means speculating that additional (battery?) backups should have been in place or that something else should have been done to preempt this crisis. From a technology standpoint, I merely find it interesting that, in this case, the electric plant is actually dependent on its own product to operate safely. Though we’ve come to take it for granted, electricity is a basic technology. It has to be created somewhere. (Just ask Thomas Edison.) How interesting that a technology for generating electricity actually relies on electricity. How many of us didn’t know that about nuclear power stations until this event unfolded?

As I attended an application development session in the last week, it occurred to me that not only is computer technology increasingly dependent on itself for each subsequent evolution, but user understanding of a new concept is also often dependent on comprehension of an existing/previous technology. In my observation, this pre-existing knowledge is often taken for granted, but in my opinion, that doesn’t make the assumption right or safe. Success won’t be automatically guaranteed when you’re making assumptions about a learner’s base knowledge. By comparison, it wasn’t right or safe for all those people to assume that a nuclear reactor would be just fine with a single backup generator, but again, how many engineers probably reviewed the design and decided it was an acceptable solution? If you would have asked me a month ago, I probably would have said the same thing. But, obviously,  I would have been wrong. Unfortunately, we all now know better.

I think this same thing has already happened in the PC technology space. I committed to writing and publishing The Ultimate PC Primer because I observed that there are a lot of current and potential computer users who don’t have adequate existing knowledge of crucial basics. They are the casualties of the technology-savvy making assumptions about them. Sure, its convenient to assume. It’s far easier than striving to figure out how to get consumers to understand the technology being thrust upon them. And if each new technology was unique and truly intuitive, it wouldn’t necessary. But that’s fantasy. Technology works in cycles where knowing what came before sets the stage for the next thing. There are some technology evangelists who, blinded by their own existing knowledge and passions,  honestly believe that no new user needs to know any of what came before or how anything really works. I say there’s already a meltdown happening at the consumer level. Never before has user understanding been so sketchy and yet our dependence on technology increases with each year.

Reliance on core technologies may not be a bad thing, but we should at least understand the implications of that on which we rely so heavily. As The Ultimate PC Primer finds publication this year, it’s my hope for new and confused PC users that they find understanding and freedom — that their future with computers won’t be full of fear but full of confidence. And my hope for the Japanese is that peace, stability, and healing comes to their nation soon.