Technology Isn't the Problem

From IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Nov. 1993

Maybe I'm going to the wrong meetings these days. I often think that somewhere else there are the good meetings, where important technical issues are debated with courtesy and keen philosophical insight. I suspect that these good meetings are held on weekends or while I am on vacation. Or perhaps my name is on a secret list of people not to be invited to these rewarding meetings. I usually go to the other kind of meetings.

For whatever reason, I have attended a series of unconnected meetings in recent months that seem to share a certain theme. Whatever the meeting is about, at some critical early time in the discussion someone says flatly, "Technology isn't the problem."

After this provocative phrase has been said in an authoritative voice, there follows a brief silence filled with a lot of synchronized head nodding. Everyone agrees. Having dismissed technology, the meeting moves on to the really important issues, such as those involving marketing, political, legal, economic, or business factors. I have never heard, for example, anyone say that business issues are not the problem.

At the mention of the word "technology," an important-looking executive turns to his assistant. "Technology?... Isn't that the stuff we already have enough of?"

"Right, J.P.," affirms the assistant, visibly impressed with the clear thinking of upper management.

The executive straightens his back and tugs importantly at his vest. If this were a comic strip with a balloon above his head representing his thoughts, it would read: "What's important is wheeling and dealing, which I'm good at. It has nothing to do with technology, which I don't understand.... Of course, I could understand technology if I really wanted to, but fortunately it's not important in these real world business situations."

To be honest, I heard myself saying at a recent meeting that technology was not the problem. My reaction to my own statement was similar to something that once happened with my dog. It was sleeping on the rug at my feet while I quietly read a book, and must have been having a doggy dream, because out of nowhere it barked in its sleep. Instantly the dog leaped into the air and looked frantically around the room. "Who barked?" it said with its electrified expression. "Where is this other dog!?" That is sort of what I did after hearing myself declare that technology was not the problem.

If this "technology isn't the problem" attitude is becoming widespread, it's probably our own fault. We've done our job too well. We have given them too many transistors, too many PCs, too many MIPs, too much shrink-wrapped software, and too many bits per second. More than anyone can use just yet. The feeling that hangs in the air is that we need a chance to exploit what we already have -- to catch our technological breath, as it were.

Perhaps there is an embarrassment of riches here. Technology makes all things possible. The issues, says the business person, are to decide which among all these things will be profitable, and to create business processes to make them happen. As to the technology needed, well it is only a matter of choosing the winners. It is certainly not necessary to fund any more. Strategic planning has become very popular, and seldom involves the development of new technology.

Some business people believe that technology has presented too many alternatives, without providing differentiation among diverse approaches. With a figurative sweep of an arm, the business executive alludes to the vast panoply of technological capability. What really matters, he says, is how you market this stuff, what investment strategy you pursue, what national policies are adopted, how clever your intellectual property lawyers are, etc. Technology isn't the problem; we already have enough.

I have been hearing these refrains enough lately, and they always depress me. Technology has created all this capability that has resulted in such marvelous business turmoil. It is a seething pot of magic potential. We engineers are the cooks, and we possess the modern "eye of newt" in our integrated circuits, software, and communications tools. I hate to see it and us go unappreciated.

I can only fantasize about how technology might be elevated in importance. In my imagination, I have a plan. After all, if we giveth, then we can taketh away. So let's give them less technology. Let's just take some of these alternatives off the table.

Suppose, for example, that Intel were to announce new versions of its microprocessors that featured lower clock rates. Instead of superseding the 80486 with the 80586, they were to announce an 80485 with less capability. To compensate for the diminished power, it would be more expensive.

These commercial developments could be accompanied by theoretical work showing new versions of the Moore chart in which transistors sizes begin increasing with time. We could blame this turnaround on metallurgical or chemical effects leading to electromigration of microstructure conductors. EEs would be blameless, and no one would understand.

Alternatively, we could allude to global warming, the depletion of the ozone layer, or the ubiquity of high tension power lines. Maybe we could blame fluorescent lights or cholesterol. Then the public would understand completely; they know the world is spiraling out of control. Why should electronics be the exception?

Microsoft would have to do their part too. Windows NT would be supplanted by Windows 2.9, followed by version 2.8, and so forth, skipping over numbers used in earlier releases. Successive versions would include less functionality and be increasingly inefficient at higher prices, while the user interface would become increasingly obscure. This overall regression would be explained as an outgrowth of chaos theory, or related in some way to the savings and loan fiasco.

Before long, business meetings would acquire a different flavor. At the mention of the word "technology," the executive might look up from his notepad. "Technology?... Isn't that the stuff we don't have enough of?" The assistant might quietly chew his lip in an effort to project an attitude of profound concern.

The thought balloon above the executive's head says: "I wish I understood this stuff."

Robert W. Lucky