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Stamp out technology virginity

Ubiquity, Volume 2002 Issue September, September 1 - September 30, 2002 | BY Espen Andersen 

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Technology virginity and technology virgins are everywhere -- and more influential than you might like. Time to go on the offensive.


Technology virginity and technology virgins are everywhere -- and more influential than you might like. Time to go on the offensive.



George Bush (the elder, not the W.) was one of relatively few US presidents not to be re-elected. One reason for this was that during the 1992 presidential campaign, Bill Clinton was able to talk to crowds in a way that made each individual feel as if he was speaking directly to (and famously "feeling the pain of") him or her. Bush, on the other hand, was the product of an old New England patrician family and had a harder time connecting to the average American.

According to an apocryphal story -- i.e., it may not be true, I haven't found a reference but I am certainly not going to let that get in the way of making a point -- Bush's campaign staff came up with a strategy to present him as a man of the people. The President was to be seen doing his own shopping at the local supermarket near his summer home in Kennebunkport, Maine. Bush duly showed up and, with press and entourage in tow, walked the aisles, picked out a pair of socks and patiently waited his turn at the cash register. Eventually, the cashier did what cashiers do: Grabbed the socks and waved them in front of the scanner, which beeped to signal that the barcode had been read. And Bush, without benefit of manuscript or in-depth briefings, smiled democratically and said "That's a nice machine -- new, is it?" Everyone, including the inwardly groaning campaign staff, instantly understood that the President was clueless about digital technology and how it had flooded everyday life while he was down in Washington.

George Bush was -- and may still be -- a technology virgin. He is not alone. There are many technology virgins out there, people who are still thinking about getting a fax at home, wondering where the @ key is, and secretly hoping that this Internet thing is a fad. Sometimes they can be rather amusing -- I once had a student who insisted that he should use the l-key (i.e., the small letter L) in a spreadsheet, rather than the numerical 1, because that's what he did on his 1965 model Remington typewriter, so there.

You find technology virgins everywhere: Teachers who insist on getting detailed training for every new piece of technology that shows up; librarians who refuse to figure out the Internet text searching tools; doctors who won't use computer technology because it is beneath them; managers who deny their employees access to the Internet. Common to them all is that they are severely middle-aged -- in soul, if not necessarily in body -- and still think of PCs and the Internet as something new and extraneous to their jobs and lives, something they can choose not to be involved with. (Lest I am accused of political incorrectness -- age in itself has nothing to do with it. Senior citizens are, increasingly, heavy technology users. Like teenagers, they have the time and the need to communicate.) Many experienced workers and managers have defined themselves out of the current technology evolution and created an environment around themselves where the technology is not let in.

We are not talking new technology here. PCs have been common in the office since at least 1985, which means that if you are 55, they have been around for about half your working life, assuming you started working at around 20. Plenty of time to learn -- but not if you put your brain on standby after graduation and refuse to take it out of mothballs when the world changes. Unless, of course, you get training, leave of absence, financial incentives and above all a perceived right to work and live exactly as you did before. The excuse is often that at a certain age, you are too old to learn, so you might as well let it be.

These are self-chosen virgins, but many of them are in positions where they can influence both how technology evolves and how we get access to and use it. An example: In 1997, when the open World Wide Web was at the ripe old age of about three, I attended a meeting with about 40 participants -- researchers, regulators, and business people -- in Oslo, Norway. The meeting's purpose was to discuss electronic commerce and how Norway should prepare itself, regulatory and otherwise, to deal with this new phenomenon. After hours of platitudes and boring discussion I couldn't keep my mouth shut any longer, so I stood up and asked "How many of you have actually bought something over the Internet?" The answer was three people, myself included.

What was scary about this number is not that it was low -- mail order and electronic commerce are still not as well developed in Europe as in the US, for a number of reasons. The scary part was that none of these 37 e-commerce novices -- granted, quite a few of them had other Internet and technology experience -- seemed to think that their lack of actual experience in any way limited their ability to discuss how electronic commerce should develop in Norway.

I don't think more training is the answer. In Norway, as in most other countries, there are lots of technology training programs. One of them, for instance, is called "Datakortet" (literally, "the computer driver's license"). This basic training program covers use of standard office tools such as Word and Excel, and upon completion, the student takes a test and gets a certificate. I think this is useful as a crutch for technology virgins to get some experience, but the problem is that they tend to learn how to use these tools not from an understanding of what the tool can do and how they can apply it to everyday use, but rather by memorizing a list of mouse movements and button pushes. This leads to situations such as the following, nicely captured in a radio commercial for a job site (the tag line being "Looking for a new job?"):

-- Boss on phone: "Jensen, I seem to have a lot of those e-mail things on my laptop computer, what should I do about them?
-- Help desk attendant: "Just throw the laptop in the water fountain, boss, and the mails will float right up."

This attitude can also be dangerous. There is currently a court case here in Norway about a shipwreck in which a new high-speed ferry hit a rock during a storm and 17 people died. The captain is blaming the shipping company for not giving him enough training on the ferry's new computer system. This captain was not the regular captain on the ferry, but on a sister ship with exactly the same computer system. The system was configured slightly differently because of local user settings, and the captain claims confusion with this as one of the causes of the accident.

The case is complicated and this is just one of the elements, but in my view it points to a problem with what Richard Feynman (1989) called brittle knowledge. Not only is lack of computer training, even for people in management positions, held up as an excuse for not being able to use the system (the way "the computer is down" is always held up as an excuse not to do anything in customer service situations), it also seems that nobody demands or expects anything more than brittle, check-list knowledge of complicated systems. This is an attitude problem more than anything else, the result, I suspect, of many managers both being technology virgins and being allowed to continue in that state.

I think technology virgins and the influence they exert is a serious problem. Technology virginity doesn't hold up technology evolution much. But it severely hampers organizations' and indeed society's ability to employ the technology intelligently, recognizing both its potential and limitations. The problem is akin to the widespread lack of understanding of even simple mathematics that Paulos (1988) called innumeracy, which results in "misinformed government policies, confused personal decisions, and an increased susceptibility to pseudo-sciences of all kinds".

Knowledge is created by reflecting on experience. Acquiring experience takes time. For knowledge to have value and be useful, it must be available and applicable early, at a time when one can still influence how something evolves. This means that to change things, you must start to use technology early. We should not, as individuals, organizations or societies, jump on new technology at any cost. But we cannot wait until we know every consequence of the technology before we start to use it. Neither can we wait, at least not if we are in positions of influence or responsibility, to get hands-on experience until we are pushed into it by a demanding environment.

Training, at least not in the form it is given now, doesn't help much. It doesn't matter how many seminars you have been to or how many books you have read -- unless you have a minimum of reflective practical experience with the phenomenon, you are in danger of becoming a victim of other people's perceptions. Just ask George Bush. You can end up not understanding that when the map and the terrain disagree, the terrain is always right.

References

Feynman, R. P. (1989). What Do You Care What Other People Think? New York, Bantam Books. Paulos, J. A. (1988). Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences. New York, Vintage Books.

Espen Andersen (self@espen.com) is associate professor with the Department of Strategy at the Norwegian School of Management BI ( www.bi.no), and a research affiliate and European research director with The Concours Group (www.concoursgroup.com), an international IT and management research and consulting organization. Based in Oslo, Norway, he has done research on topics such as mobile business, electronic commerce, knowledge management, digital business strategy and CIO-CEO interaction.

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