Problem Management — principles

The medium is the Massage.
— Marshall McLuhan — 1967

It's not the technology that's scary. It's what it does to the relations between people."
— Robert Pirsig — 1974

The myth that Bill Gates has appeared like a knight in shining armor to lead all customers out of a mire of technological chaos neatly ignores the fact that it was he who, by peddling second-rate technology, led them into it in the first place, and continues to do so today.
— Douglas Adams

We had 12.9 gigabytes of (Microsoft) PowerPoint slides on our network. And I thought, What a huge waste of corporate productivity. So we banned it. And we've had three unbelievable record-breaking fiscal quarters since we banned PowerPoint. Now, I would argue that every company in the world, if they would just ban PowerPoint, would see their earnings skyrocket. Employees would stand around going, What do I do? Guess I've got to go to work.
— Scott McNealy, Sun Microsystems, San Jose Mercury News — 27 January 1997

It is a common myth that new technologies will improve the way we do things. In reality, it does much more than change the way we do things, it changes the very things we do.

In the 19th century, a typical rural family would hitch up the waggon and spend a few hours driving into town for supplies from the general store, and a few more driving back to the farm.

20th century technology improved the situation. With a truck, they could do all that in only an hour or two, freeing up many hours of time for each trip. New technology makes common tasks easier and less time consuming.

But, rather than remaining as a once a month shopping trip, the truck made it reasonable to go into town every week, or maybe even several times a week. And since the trip was no longer so tedious, several members of the family might want to go along for the ride and to do their own personal shopping. It also made it possible to take much longer trips, say into the City, or to visit friends or relatives that are now only minutes away.

So, instead of one person spending the better part of a day each month fetching supplies, several people could now spend many many more hours driving back and forth. The new technology hasn't really made anything easier or less time consuming, it's actually done the opposite.

That doesn't however mean that technology has failed, and that we'd be better off without it. In fact, it's made a dramatic change to the family's lifestyle. a change that might be considered good or bad, depending upon one's point of view.

And that's the point: technology doesn't simply make it easier to do what we already do, it enables and encourages us to do new things in new ways.

Marshall McLuhan's famous the medium is the message (and the medium is the massage) describes exactly this situation.

We can consider a message to be something that changes our behaviour. E.g. Six times seven is forty-two. is not really a message; we already know that; but The house is on fire! or Doughnuts in the lounge! are messages, as they can change what we do. A medium is simply something that carries a message.

The invention of the truck was time and labour saving technology, but it was also the medium for a very powerful message. It said that distant places were now much closer, that frequent trips weren't unreasonable, that it was now possible to go to places that were formerly inaccessible. (And who could have imagined the social impact on teenage dating.) But this message was not the intended message, and it was not explicit. It was the truck itself that changed our behaviour, it was the medium that implied the message.

A much more recent example is the cell phone. Pay phones were awkward and not always available, and having to sit at home waiting for a call was inconvenient. The cell phone was a simple technological device, intended to make accessing the telephone much easier.

But, it did much more than that. We can now all be reached no matter where we are; we don't have to be tied to the home phone. We can quickly and easily send text or e-mail to others, regardless of where they are. It no longer matters where anyone is, we are all instantly connected.

No matter where we are, we remain in contact, allowing others to bother us whenever they want. It just might be important, so we have to stay connected.

The cell phone did much more than make telephoning someone easier. It has completely changed our way of life, and society as a whole, especially when combined with access to the Internet and GPS services, and the ready availability of thousands of applications.

The cell phone is the medium, and its implied message is that we are no longer alone, and never will be, whether we want it or not.