Friday, January 3, 2014

Knowing the Place of Technology

2013 was a bad year for technology and Massively Open Online Courses (MOOCs) are just one more example. Not only was there a backlash among faculty (which I heard echoed on the UCR campus), but there were big failures like San Jose State. They don't seem to be working out well, except for students who are already highly self-motivated. They also don't seem to be more cost-effective.

Part of the problem may be that we're still figuring out how to do a good job of educating people. This is hard to do. It's even harder today because society and technology are changing so fast. We're educating a greater portion of the population, which is good, but this is also revealing the ways that education falls short and fails to serve segments of our society.

Another part of the problem is that we're still figuring out how to make technology that's easy to use. When an application developer or an engineer designs a machine or program to automate a job, a good machine or program is intuitive to use for a person who already has a conceptual understanding of the job that they are doing.

However, learning is far more free-form than other tasks we can automate. Also, overcoming the barriers to learning usually involve activities that machines don't do well - i.e., empathy and creative problem solving. We can find ways to use technology well in education, but technologists need to understand the big picture.

Programmers and engineers sometimes overstate the scope of what technology is capable, partly because they tend not to look beyond that scope. It's important to understand what machines are good at (repetitive tasks, following logical sequences reliably) and how that fits with what people are good at (empathy and creativity).

A good example of this is UserVoice CEO Richard White's recent statements about the BART worker's strike this week, and his interview on Marketplace. He said first the BART employees should be given what they want, and then their jobs should all be automated.

However, as you can hear in the interview, there are aspects of these jobs that White is overlooking. Also, the idea that the BART worker in the interview would be freed to follow her dream career after she gets laid off is pie-in-the-sky idealism. The alternative jobs she lists don't have benefits, and provide unstable income.

White might think that these are the kinds of problems that technologists can't solve on their own. However, these are exactly the kind of problems technologists should be tackling. We should be looking at how technology can be used by the worker to alleviate tedious tasks that machines do well and that people do poorly.

How can technology be used to make the worker more satisfied by their work? By making the worker happier, the technologist makes the worker more productive.

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