In the midst of cutbacks and crisis, efficiency is vital to providing quality service. Increasingly, this may mean turning the reins over to technology to solve the ever widening array of problems affecting the public service today.
However, a reliance on technological change can make it seem like technology is the solution, not the method; that just implementing technological innovations, or even just talking about them, is as good as using them. This way of thinking risks obscuring what technology is specifically and what it is capable of doing. As a rhetorical tool, it makes it appear to be a magic band-aid that will solve all of an organization’s woes. In other words, thinking of technology as a solution risks making it out to be a panacea.
This way of thinking is challenging for a number of reasons. The first is that when technology is treated as a panacea this actually limits the change it can create, because expectations surrounding its use – in scope, in timeframe, or in goals – are never realistically assessed. Unrealistic expectations can create blindness to how to develop a game plan for a technological system’s implementation and how much maintenance it will require.
For an example of a failed IT project, think of a blog with the latest post dated for 2010. Often, users create a social media platform underestimating how much work it will take to maintain the site, while optimistically overestimating how much work the site will do for them. Cyber-ghost houses like these serve to illustrate how blindness to technologies’ limits can cripple its use.
IT projects that have failed because of unreasonable expectations abound in the Canadian public service. They represent waste on several levels, besides just the obvious misuses of time, energy and money. When technology is capable of making the public service more efficient and more open – and this is what citizens desire most – this is an egregious waste of potential. It shows a lack of understanding on the part of managers and leaders for what technology can and cannot do.
Which brings us to the second problem with treating technology as a panacea: it causes would-be technology users to blindly over-inflate its capabilities – and their own. In The Closed World, historian Paul Edwards describes Operation Igloo White as an instance of over-confidence in technologically-driven warfare. During the Vietnam War, American forces developed a mapping system, based on sensor-input data, to prevent Vietnamese use of supply routes. What ended up happening, however, was that Vietnamese forces rigged the sensors and avoided them. Assuming that the technology in place fully solved the problem at hand, the American control rooms that operated this program were oblivious to how their system was lacking.
The Americans’ data system was not nearly as much of a problem as their lack of awareness for where their data fell short – for knowing where their technology failed.
This lack of critical thinking should ring alarm bells for technology enthusiasts, because future technology has the potential to become more all-encompassing than ever before. AR glasses, such as Google Glass, smarter-than-ever cell phones, and cloud computing are representative of the growing integration of technology into daily life. Data-centric applications, those where data directs the user, are also increasing in use. Big data is the hottest topic on this front, but the concept has been around for years; for instance, in data mapping, which tells journalists what subjects will be popular to write on, and when. This technology makes life for the journalist easier, but what stories might it cause him or her to miss? What blind spots will future technological innovations create?
Technological panaceas can cause blindness to critical thinking, over-confidence, and can even limit the innovation that technology is supposed to bring about. However, it is worth noting that there have been recent successes across the Canadian public service in social media, open data, and communications. Hopefully, pragmatic approaches to technology in the public service will continue to work as a cure to the risky rhetoric of technological panaceas.
This article owes a debt of gratitude to Brian Bergstein’s take on Operation Igloo White in his article “The Problem with our Data Obsession,” published in the MIT Tech Review online February 20, 2013.