Technology is a Toaster

David discusses domestic life, goats, and how a more utilitarian, rather than utopian view of technology, is the way forward.

“It’s common to think of technology as encompassing only very new, science intensive things… but it’s also possible to view it just as things (or indeed processes) that enable us to perform tasks more effectively than we could without them.”,

Steven Shapin, The New Yorker (2008)

Last year my washing machine told me it has E-15. Apparently, this meant an inlet water problem. I stared at my motionless washing machine for 3 weeks prodding it occasionally, removing all sorts of compartments to no avail.

“We are wrong to associate technology solely with invention, and that we should think of it, rather, as evolving through use”

– David Edgerton, ‘The Shock of the Old: Technology and Global History Since 1900’ (2008)

In the meantime, I had a challenge of how I was going to wash my clothes. Inevitably this was to be done in the bath, but how much washing powder? What temperature?I’ve never touched the water in a washing machine to know. How long do I swirl it for? How many rinses? What about fabric softener?

The whole manual bath-washing process took 30 minutes a shot, about 10 different steps, and a lot of confusion and questions.

And I’m used to pressing two buttons.

The same is true of my microwave, the dishwasher, my old VCR, and my toaster.

Source: Daily Mail, 6 Dec 2018

Ask an audience what they think the best technologies currently are, and instead of quoting the “Toaster” and “Washing Machine” they will quote “Airbnb”, and “Uber”. Uber and Airbnb are only really innovation in channel and interface. Taxi booking has existed since 1635, and accommodation has existed since the Bible. I hear you cry “but it’s so much cheaper!”, but 9 times out of 10, prices are competed away in a free market economy (Law of One Price).

Worst of all, these same people tapping their address into Uber would fail to name a great technology as “The Keyboard” (invented in 1878). The keyboard does not need a technical spec sheet or Live Chat.

We might also think the Space Shuttle is great technology – and it is – but the space shuttle hasn’t changed my life on a daily basis in the same way as my domestic appliances have, nor is it as easy to use.

Technology is a Toaster.

As humans, our cognitive bias will always instinctively look for both proximity and shiney-ness in innovation. So, what makes the Toaster, the Washing Machine, the Microwave, and the VCR important? They are valuable not because of what they give you, it’s what they take away. This technology exists to minimise process steps, give me back time and money, and reduce any associated mess and frustration, and the technology is decades old!

This is important to me in my daily role with Qlik’s customers, because whilst it’s easy to wow people on technologies’ potential use in terms of feature/function and what these will give us, it’s as important to have a conversation about how great technology, analytics, and lots of Qlik will actually create time, value, and ease, and this becomes a much more real and compelling conversation at every level of an organisation.

So where is your organisation thinking about deploying Toasters instead of Space Shuttles? Where could you deploy relatively simple and inexpensive solutions to help your people?

“Qlik never takes away people’s interesting tasks.”

Source: Professor Philip Tetlock, University of Pennsylvania, the Wharton School

More seriously, what if life depended on it? I have a friend called Yann. Yann works in an admirable part of healthcare and pharmaceuticals that looks at underfunded rare diseases. He was puzzling about how we can reliably prevent Pre-Eclampsia – a condition with devastating effects for women in childbirth. Typically, someone suspected of the infection before childbirth has a course of treatment costing around $6000 to $300,000 depending on severity (Source: AJOG 2012). Alone, the antibodies used to treat it are generated in a factory that cost upwards of $500mn to build.

Yann rethought the problem, and decided to use transgenic goats to generate the antibodies. After finding a working technology, it cost around $25mn to build his goat farm. The antibodies produced organically have a 96% success rate (higher success than the non-organic and more expensive technology), it costs around $60 a dosage, and the goats are 2-5 times more productive than a non-organic cell culture.

This radical rethinking of how to naturally treat a critical infection creates value for almost everyone; the hospital, the insurance company, and most of all the patient and child.

So where could you employ goats in your organisation?

No Goats were hurt during the generation of this article:

Source: Yann Echelard, The Wharton School, (2016)

How are you thinking about releasing value through technology – what is it giving you, what can it take away? How is your organisation re-thinking what is frustrating you, costing you time and money, and rethinking what great technology can take away?

In other words, are Toasters and Goats and a more utilitarian view of technology your way forward?

David Warne provides insight into where to find the real value of technology.


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