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How to Make Superior Technological Choices


As our world comes to increasingly rely on new technological solutions to old problems, we experience both positive and negative results. In the 1970's, for example, the United States built nuclear power plants so quickly that energy companies had difficulty finding contractors with sufficient expertise and resources. Sometimes, seemingly out of necessity, construction quality standards and safety regulations were haphazardly enforced. While the US population received the benefit of electricity to heat and cool their homes, they lived with great concerned over the possibility of nuclear accidents.

After some well-publicized nuclear accidents, the building of new nuclear power plants came to a complete halt in the United States. The possibility of accidents had been understood for decades. Exhaustive studies had been undertaken. Governments and the public were aware of the possibility of accidents and the problems with the storage of radio-active waste. Yet, we were furiously building new plants--right up until the accidents occurred. Then, it was like someone pulled the brakes on the train, and it came to a screeching halt. Though we continue to use pre-existing nuclear plants, between 1977 and 2010, a 33 year gap, no new construction began on a single nuclear power plant in the US.

It seems that as a society, we have difficulty transitioning smoothly from a theoretical understanding of proffered technological solutions to the reality of a world that includes them. Frequently, we have been figuratively slapped in the face with the results of our technological implementations before clearly seeing how theory leads to reality. This cycle seems to repeat itself with many of the new technologies that emerge from our scientific and engineering development efforts.

As individuals, we go through the same process. Perhaps some of us choose to buy a new $3000 laptop thinking it will improve our lives. After all, it boots 20 seconds faster than our old laptop, and the CPU runs 30% faster. It's also thinner, lighter, and more modern-looking. "So," we think, "it must be worth $3000 dollars. Right?" When the new laptop has problems or we have difficulty using it, we begin to question whether the money we paid was worth the product we received. Others assume that frequenting Facebook will help them maintain old friendships and lead to new ones. So, they create an account. If the new people they meet on line don't develop into true friends, they wonder if maybe they have wasted their time. Perhaps, as a result, they make an effort to have more face-to-face interactions.

One of the major reasons for our lack of clear vision is very likely the fact that the overwhelming majority of human beings are not good at realistically assessing probabilities. What is the likelihood that a solution will yield the result we want without the side-effects we don't want? How significant are the side effects to the quality our daily lives? Both as a society and as individuals, we seem unable to accurately predict. So, instead, we solve our problems by trial and error. In the 1970's, the solution of the decade was nuclear power. Today, it is the use of information technology to solve just about every problem via an increasingly centralized Internet. Two decades from now it will probably be something else. This trial-and-error process occurs with many, if not most, new technologies. Three more examples are medicine, battery technologies, and automotive technology. Some solutions are kept. Some are improved upon. And, some are abandoned.

As we go through this trial-and-error process, someone often makes money off of our learning process. In the US in the 1970's, it was builders of nuclear power plants. Today, it is Facebook, Google, Apple, Amazon, and others.

When we choose between options, especially technological options, we are often confronted with a large number of facts, some more relevant, and some less relevant. This is as true for an energy company seeking a source of electrical power for its customers as it is for a consumer looking for a new laptop. How do we judge the relevance of the facts related to the decisions we make? How relevant is the fact that nuclear power is a more modern and technologically advanced solution than a coal-fueled power? How relevant is the fact that a new laptop is more modern looking, thinner, and lighter? How relevant is a 20 second reduction in boot-up time? How do we decide which facts are more relevant than others?

In 2006 a well-known psychologist named Jonathon Haidt published a book called, The Happiness Hypothesis: Finding Modern Truth in Ancient Wisdom. In his book, Haidt used the analogy of the elephant and the rider to explain how we make decisions. The elephant represents our emotions, and the rider is our logical, rational thought processes. The elephant is very difficult to control, but with effort and patience, the rider can guide it to some extent. The rider can never hope to control the elephant completely, but he can influence it. Though this analogy is ultimately flawed, at a superficial level of thought, it is a useful model.

While every individual has had varying levels of success at taming his elephant, the overwhelming majority of us make decisions based on emotions, without spending enough time taking facts into account. We use reasoning and facts only later--to justify decisions we have already made based on emotion. For example, in the 1970's, we knew that nuclear power was dangerous, costly, and had some large problems associated with it. But, we were proud of our technological achievements and looked forward to more and more progress in that and other areas. So we likely over-estimated the positive benefits of the nuclear power options available to us at the time and de-emphasized the negative aspects. Pride and hopeful anticipation were likely two emotions which weighed heavily into our decision to build nuclear power plants. Fear was clearly the emotion that caused us to stop.

When making buying decisions, we all allow our emotions to give us our first impressions about which products are best. Unwary customers then justify their purchases rationally by weighting most heavily the facts that support the decision that has already been made by their emotions. Sellers of products and services know this and use our emotions to get us to buy their products.

A few years ago, I happened to walk into a Best Buy and see the new (at the time) Asus ZenBook 3 Deluxe. It is impossible for me to convey in words the beauty of this laptop. Its shell was anodized navy blue aluminum with gold trim. It was incredibly thin and clean without any discernible blemish. It was, hands down, the most beautiful laptop I have ever seen in my life! For months I ogled it. Sometimes, just the thought of seeing it again convinced me to go back to Best Buy when I really had no pressing need. I justified trips back to the store based on "needing" new USB flash drives, etc., but I knew I was really there to gaze longingly upon the beauty that was the ZenBook 3 Deluxe. I imagined myself carrying it to work and showing it to all my colleges who would be suitably jealous. Asus knows just how to prey upon this emotion with this line on its website: "ZenBook 3 Deluxe takes ZenBook 3 to the next level -- for the ultimate prestige and performance." I thought about how this laptop would be so easy to carry around with me and how opening it at the beginning of each new day at work would make me feel. I went on and on in my mind envisioning what owning it would be like. I had a real problem!

If you have read many articles on and understand that the best predictor of a person's future behavior is his past behavior, you may be able to predict how this tale ultimately ends. I overcame my lust for the ZenBook 3 Deluxe by envisioning it two years after purchase--all scratched and dented. I told myself that its beauty would fade, like a beautiful woman after raising five children. I reminded myself repeatedly that I had all the computing power that I needed with my current Dell Latitude E6220 and that for well over $1000 I would be getting nothing that I actually needed. My rider eventually prevailed over my elephant, but it was a struggle.

Perceptive buyers know that emotional reactions to potential purchases must be carefully analyzed before actions are taken in order to achieve superior buying choices. With this laptop purchasing decision, I re-weighted in my mind the relevance of the facts. Though I was motivated to rate beauty and thinness very highly, I reminded myself that beauty would fade long before the end of the useful life of the laptop. I reminded myself that thinness was just a fad, that it actually had a negative influence on the usefulness of the laptop. Some downsides of thin laptops are propensities for thermal throttling, lack of upgradeability, and lack of user-replaceable batteries. I made a conscious decision to weight more heavily the difference in computing power between my current laptop and the ZenBook. Ultimately, I decided that the increase in computing performance was not enough to justify the cost. While fully acknowledging that the metaphor is flawed, I will state superficially that in my quandary over whether to purchase the ZenBook, I paused long enough to give my rider time to take control of my elephant by re-weighting the evidence, though as always, my elephant was only partially subdued.

Emotion was involved in this re-weighting also. I am biased by nature toward frugality over time savings. Had I considered the amount of time saved with a slightly faster laptop, I may have investigated more thoroughly to determine just how much faster, if any, the ZenBook was than my current laptop. I could have done more research to learn how much thermal throttling actually occurs in the ZenBook. Instead, I allowed my assumptions to continue unchallenged. I simply assumed that the time I would have saved by using the new laptop was less than the time I would have spent working to pay for it. I made no attempt to calculate the difference.

When one investigates further, one finds that it may well be impossible to separate emotion from reasoning. Though our intuition says otherwise, reason and emotion are deeply intertwined in our fallible human minds at an extremely low level of our consciousness. Few if any of us are aware of just how thoroughly biologically and sociologically programed we actually are. When we think we have succeeded in untangling reason and emotion for the purposes of making a decision, it may only be because we haven't thought deeply enough. In the end, human reasoning may only be a process by which we evaluate which emotions we choose to weight more heavily than others. Still, large benefits can be derived from making the effort. Our post-purchase satisfaction can often be greatly increased with more pre-purchase thought.

Much of the direction that our society has taken technologically has been driven by our emotional desire to get something for little or no coast. It is not my intention to imply that lower cost solutions are inferior, only that we must be aware of our emotional need for "free" and low-cost products clouding our judgment about which products are the best solutions to our problems in the long run. This impulse of ours to get something for nothing has enabled FaceBook, Google, and others to become giant corporations which are now in positions to drive the direction of Internet-related technologies. One example of this is that Google now has the power to dictate how web developers design their websites, just a Netscape had in the 1990's with its market-dominating browser. If website designers want search traffic to their websites, they must follow Google's rules. I have felt the pressure to conform, even though search traffic is not something that I must have at all costs, as I am not attempting to make a living from my website.

Our desire for "free" software and information has given Google, Microsoft, and others the power to make choices for us that are not necessarily in our best interests. One example of this occurred during the "browser wars" of the 1990's. In 1994 Netscape's browser dominated the browser market. Unfortunately, however, the various versions of Netscape's browser were its only product. So, when Microsoft introduced Internet Explore 1.0 into Windows 95, Netscape had a problem. Since Internet Explorer was always included in Windows for "free", Netscape was never really successful at charging for its product. As a result, Netscape was unable continue developing its browser at the pace necessary to successfully compete with Internet Explorer. New versions of Netscape became buggy. All the while, Microsoft, flushed with cash from sales hundreds of millions of copies of Windows, was able to subsidize the true cost of Internet Explorer, and thus continually improve it. Though there were other factors at play in the slow demise of Netscape's browser, it could be argued that they were only the result of a lack of money. By 1998 Netscape had already lost the browser wars when it was acquired by AOL and received enough cash to continue developing its browser for another decade, until AOL finally ended browser development in early 2008.

Another example of our emotional desire for "free" products dictating our choice of technologies is highlighted by an article in The Guardian back in 2011 stating that the Internet has virtually destroyed the market for films, music, and newspapers, thanks to piracy and companies like Youtube. Recently, Youtube began charging, in my opinion over-charging, for a service it once provided for free.

Another example is that operating systems are now in the process of being changed from mostly off line to "always-connected". Google's Chrome OS is the prime example. Whereas in the past, we bought software on CD's and DVD's, we now simply use it "for free" on Google websites. Microsoft is beginning to go in the same direction with its Windows operating system. We no longer buy a new version of Windows on a DVD or with a new computer. Now, Windows updates are automatically downloaded to us without our knowledge, except when control is taken completely from us while updates are being installed, often at the most inconvenient moments. I removed Office 365 from my computer about four years ago when it informed me one day that I had to connect to the Internet before it would allow me to open a document that I had written and stored on my laptop's hard drive. I had good reasons for not connecting to the Internet, and I did not want my software overriding the decisions I had made about how I choose to use my computer.

In 2017, Microsoft praised the emergence of always-connected laptops. One article's subheading reads, "Always Connected PCs enable a new culture of work with better security at a lower cost". The phrases "always-connected" and "better security" are an oxymoron. The article goes on to say that the intention behind the words "better security" is that always-connected laptops are designed to have a cellular connection rather than forcing some users to rely on open wifi networks. The implication is that the use of open wifi networks is the only alternative. Microsoft never mentions VPN's or other alternatives that smart consumers who need a higher level of security use. While I am biased, my opinion is that any laptop to which Microsoft has constant access is less secure, not more. Yet, many consumers' emotional desires for convenience and free software will very likely overwhelm their rational thought processes and convince them to purchase devices with always-connected operating systems.

I could go on and on with example after example of instances in which we have not paused sufficiently to think deeply, rather, we have allowed our emotional reactions to steer us into making sub-par decisions about our choices and uses of various technologies, But, I think I have made my point. The bottom line is that our eyes have frequently not been opened until our less-than-superior decisions have slapped us in the face. Though we will never totally subdue our elephant and choose truly optimal solutions, superior choices are more likely to result from understanding that a large part of how we think about technologies is driven by our emotions, and our ability to make accurate predictions is limited.

Related Articles:

The High Cost of Technological Illiteracy in Our Society

Is Technoaddiction Real?

Sometimes Newer Technology is Not Better

Laptop Beauty is only Skin Deep, but Functionality goes all the way to the Bone

Computer Built-In Obsolescence

The Next Internet

What I Learned about the Internet by Creating My Own Website


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