The constant evolution of technology can have a downside

It's long been assumed that the constant evolution of technology is a good thing. But evolution is a double-edged sword that can cause as much harm as good, our expert cautions.

Whenever a group of IT old-timers get together, a game I call "IT Codger One-upmanship" inevitably breaks out. The game might kick off with someone recalling the anxiety they had about Y2K. The next person tries to top that with tales about the misadventures of conditional if-then-do-statements in FORTRAN. Yet another ups the ante with a story about finding the needle in a punch card haystack.

An important lesson this game reminds us about is the constant evolution of technology. My first real job in IT was converting complex FORTRAN programs into pure C, allowing them to run on any existing operating system, from Apple desktop systems to Cray supercomputers.

It occurred to me back then, and I believe it more firmly now, that this constant evolution of technology accelerates good work and bad work equally. If you are doing good things, technology can make those good things happen faster. If you are doing boneheaded things, it can make boneheaded things happen faster.

For example, when I implement a new business system, I make sure we first clean up, simplify and standardize the business processes and business rules the technology will support. Applying technology to well-scrubbed processes ensures the project generates value. If, however, we use technology to pave the meandering cow paths of exception handling and bad processes, the rapid evolution of technology can accelerate the negative because now it simply costs more to manage bad processes.

The negative aspect of the evolution of technology carries over to how we use technology. In the old days, technology's reach was limited -- but then the Internet extended that reach to just about everywhere. When I have a vexing IT problem, I send an email out to my IT contacts and get back perfect solutions within minutes. Without the Internet, my job would be much more difficult, and that would make me more prone to mistakes. Nevertheless, the benefits of the Internet came with a downside: In the pre-Internet days, we hardly ever thought about security or fraud, or the whole raft of potential dangers we now must focus on constantly.

Thanks to the constant evolution of technology, we now are awash in personal information. One of my IT peers refuses to use a grocery store loyalty card. His rationale is that using it means that someone is storing data about the food he buys. Then at some point, someone will make that data available to his health insurance provider, who will see how many salty snacks, soft drinks and sweets he purchases, and use this information to put him into a higher-risk insurance pool. When I scoff and tell him he's being paranoid, he says he's paranoid only because everyone is out to get him.

His actions again highlight the evolution of technology's potential downside. Someone can use technology to make my life better -- such as creating electronic medical records that give health care professionals instant access to my medical history -- but they also can use it to make my life worse -- by increasing my life and health care insurance rates.

So, how can we use this rapid evolution of technology only for good? What I do is use the what-would-my-mother-think rule of thumb. It goes something like this: I work on a project that profiles my customers, gathers their purchase history and puts them into various categories. Then I use this information to propose products they might like. So, if you and customer X are similar and customer X really likes product A, you might too.

Is this a technology my mother would have liked to use? Yes it is, so I am confident it can turn something good into something better. On the other hand, what if I am thinking of mashing together customer purchase histories and genealogy records so I can sell to my customers' families? I am pretty sure my mother would tell me this one hits too close to home.

It is worthwhile to weigh both the advantages and the disadvantages of the ways technology is becoming more intertwined with our lives. We have to make sure we use this rapid evolution of technology to move toward the light, not the dark.

Niel Nickolaisen is CIO at Western Governors University in Salt Lake City. He is a frequent speaker, presenter and writer on IT's dual role enabling strategy and delivering operational excellence. Write to him at nnick@wgu.edu.

This was first published in December 2010

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