Jay Little - Software Obsessionist
Why Bad Tech Doesn't Just Die Already

07/07/2018 18:01:19

This week I'm going to delve into a question which occasionally rears its ugly head even for me: Why doesn't bad tech ever seem to go away? It is worth noting up front that while this includes computer based tech, it covers all kinds of tech. For example, we still have people who insist on photocopying and faxing things.

Why do people still photocopy things? I really don't understand it myself. But then again, printing things is already incredibly offensive and wasteful from my point of view so I'm willing to assume that the opportunity to photocopy things is less common for me largely as a consequence of that. A similar reasoning could be applied to faxing things, but in all honesty one can fax documents without relying upon actual paper. There are a variety of ways to fax things electronically nowadays.

When it comes to photocopying, I primarily hate it because it requires you to have something that you or somebody else wastefully put onto a piece of paper in addition to also requiring you to want to double down on that wastefulness. I find it to be infuriating. The idea of printing out reams of paper is simply a symptom of a bygone era in which people could waste all of their precious natural resources without giving a damn about the big picture. As a society we ought to know better now. In case you haven't gotten the message, I'm a big believer in the concept of the paperless office. Sadly most offices aren't remotely close to achieving this goal.

In regards to faxing, I actually partially hate it for the same reasons I hate photocopying. While it is possible send and receive faxes in a 100% electronic fashion, most of the old fuddy duddies still using this tech aren't actually doing that. Beyond that faxing has the added downside of being one of the least secure ways to send a document that the human race ever had the gall to invent. Your documents are not encrypted in transit. There is no guarantee that the specific person you want to receive your document is going to be the one who actually receives it. These vast problems are made even worse when you consider that the medical industry in our country appears to be completely dependent on this tech. The idea of my medical records flying over poorly maintained networks of copper wires and anybody in the same office space being able to read my personal information is more than a little concerning.

The way I see it, the real obstacle to killing off these techs is that they were initially created to solve problems inherent in older paper based workflows. Now while there is no technical reason for those workflows to still exist, they obviously do as people are still relying on these techs to address the same sort of problems. So why are people still using antiquated workflows? Why not integrate newer tech in a way that reduces the pain and waste inherent in older ways of doing things?

Part of the problem here is that when new workflows based on new tech were introduced, they were designed to provide an analogue to the older workflows. I personally believed that while these decisions may have initially helped to increase adoption of the newer workflows, they also had the downside of legitimizing the older ones simultaneously. Examples of these analogues are far and wide and range from things like the concept of a "desktop" in your operating system or the count of the number of "pages" of content in your document. Neither concept adds any value to any modern paperless workflow, yet they are still there.

In addition, a lot of people refuse to evolve and adapt. On some level I'm a little sympathetic to this as it can be difficult to distance yourself from a proven workflow that you've become accustomed to. Nevertheless, the solution to this problem is to simply stop coddling people who insist on living in the past. If that's something they still choose to do despite the consequences then so be it. But by providing analogues for older workflows as part of newer workflows we are unintentionally making this problem worse. The cold hard truth is that no workflow is sacred. The extension of that is that no tech is sacred either. That being the case, we should all be looking for ways to up our game and improve our approach. Comfort is not a valid excuse.

Before we finish up, it is worth noting that the age of the workflow or tech isn't really the problem here. It's the fact that the workflow or tech has been supplanted by a far superior and/or less wasteful alternative. In my experience the best and most long lasting workflows and techs are ones that evolve and adapt to embrace useful concepts and tools. The ones that remain stagnant are the ones I resent the most.

So what can do be done about these old techs and workflows? Nothing really. Old fossils are still going to fax and photocopy things because taking the time to learn a non-paper based workflow is seen as some sort of unbearable cost for any one of a million reasons. Eventually as the proponents of these old and disgraced workflows leave the work force and society at large, the old workflows will begin to die. Once the workflows die, the old tech won't be far behind.

At least, I sincerely hope that's the case.

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