Technical reasons may often be insufficient


I’ve been wrestling with this idea in my head for a few months, waiting for a time when I could sufficiently articulate it rather than just stringing a few use cases together. That time has not come to pass, so have the aforementioned anecdotes!

A couple of weeks ago we were working on an authentication system at work, of sorts. The technical solution worked flawlessly, but I half-joked that it’d be far easier for humans if two tokens could be merged into one. This generated a less than enthusiastic response, and a deep discussion on protocols.

Shambles Constant mentioned this on the latest Radio Free Shambles episode on the Overnightscape Underground:

The fact I would probably just have one screen [with this work laptop] unless I were able to hook it up with my home laptop … but I wouldn’t know how that works.

In Japan I accidentally left my Sydney Opal card in my wallet with my ICOCA contactless transit card, but the readers in the Tokyo Metro weren’t confused by it at all and let me through. I joked that my Osaka transit card could be used in Tokyo, but why not my Australian one? And why do the readers in Sydney get confused if my ICOCA and Opal cards are in the same wallet, when the Tokyo Metro can figure it out?

In all these examples, there were completely understandable technical reasons why what this human wanted to do couldn’t be done. But I’m increasingly unsatisfied with that as the lone excuse. My hunch isn’t that the technology can’t do it, it’s often that we haven’t deployed it to do it, or haven’t prioritised it to do it. Those are very different things.

In my early twenties I used to lampoon people for what I deemed were silly things; read the archives here, I’m sure you’ll find examples. But if someone is attempting to do something, or wants to, doesn’t that illustrate a need?

Our computer systems are at least several orders of magnitude more powerful than they were a few short decades ago. It has brought forward tremendous social and societal change, some of which is even positive. But there are some problems that don’t need more tech thrown at them, they need empathy and imagination. Perhaps even laws.

A decade ago I wrote about Om Malik’s comments on Google, but it could just as easily apply to tech decisions at many, if not most, companies.

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Ruben Schade is a technical writer and infrastructure architect in Sydney, Australia who refers to himself in the third person. Hi!

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