a couple of weeks ago I was having a discussion about how to translate the verb “to embrace technology” in Italian. It turns out that there is no single word to express the concept, neither there is a short paraphrase that catches the nuances. To embrace doesn’t mean to accept whole-heartedly giving up responsibility, nor it stands for an ever increasing neomania about apps or devices. The most acccurate sentence I was able to come up is “cogliere le opportunità offerte dalla tecnologia, tenendo presenti rischi e limitazioni”, which translates literally to “take advantage of the opportunities offered by technology, taking into account risks and limitations”.
Now, not having a word for that does not mean that we soccer-loving spaghetti-eaters can’t embrace tech, so much as not having a word for “blue” in ancient Greek stopped Homer from writing about the “wine-dark sea” (thanks to Nassim Taleb for making me aware of that through his book Antifragile). Let me know expand on the three key elements of the definition given above, and then wrap up.
Depending on the activity you are focusing on, technology can make you faster, better, automated, requiring less effort (both physical and mental), giving access to more connections, more people, more exposure and visibility. Technology can also help turning wastes into resources, develop new forms of communication and prolong or lives (well, actually you may fare better by abstaining from using some new things like cigarettes, carbonated drinks and processed sugary foods).
Does this sound cheesy? Yes, of course! However, it seems that for the last 3,000 years this was all the rave.
Since I don’t want to sound cheesy for two paragraphs in a row, I’ll just state that proper risk management is fundamental in every aspect of personal and professional life. We could go on debating forever about it, but I’ll just write down three principal tenets that I try to apply:
- “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”: if something has not been proven dangerous, it does not mean that it is not. Some things even seem beneficial at first, until proven harmful, maybe even after an extended period (margarine, radiations, smoke…)
- The “worst case scenario” based on a historical series that many analyses bring to our attention many times is just the worse up to now. Fukushima and the new worst earthquake in that area of Japan is a prominent example
- You can’t disregard “unknown unknowns”: always assume that something is escaping our knowledge and weight your decisions against that.
Every technology can have its limitations: fast but costly, quality but bulky, practical but with a steep learning curve, efficient but alienating (rarely we take into account the long-term social costs of a new gizmo!). One of the limitations that you can focus on is the durability of a technology. Are you willing to invest heavily in something that may be out of date in a year or two? How do you assess the expected lifetime of a new idea, trend, tech? The physicist Richard Gott comes in handy here. The starting assumption of his reasoning is that you can predict that something you are observing has already lived for a quarter of his life with a 75% confidence level. This works unless you know there is something special in your observation, like knowing that you are observing the launch of a ship (no, not the Titanic!) or the demolition of the Berlin Wall (the wall was the inspiration for Gott and its methodology). For a more detailed explanation, you can start from Richard Gott’s Wikipedia page. The World Wide Web has been with us since 1990, so we can be confident that it will stay with us for another nine years with a 75% probability (unless I got the math wrong!). This does not mean that it will not last another 1,000 years, it’s just a probabilistic outcome. The iPhone came out ten years ago, so things are more uncertain: what drives our investments is not the unknowable durability of the technology, but rather the enormous popularity of smartphones and the velocity of implementations of new business models concerning them.
Beware, knowing that a given technology will cease to exist is not necessarily bad news! It can be replaced by something better, and it is a signal that humanity progressed! Cassette recorders were overtaken by CDs, bulky typing machines by laptops, bloodletting by antibiotics and other innovations in medicine. On the other hand, some things are here to last for a looooong time: fire for cooking, shoes (have they really changed in the last couple of millennia?), clothes, books! When considering which technology to embrace, take into account the risk of its disappearance. It’s kind of what I did with my new little project outlined in this blog post: more on that will follow, it’s built momentum, and it is in a promising state!
Why all this talking about technology? First, because the linguistic discussion was interesting and touched a non-trivial point. Second, it was an opportunity for me to make clarity about purposes and methods. Third, and most important, it’s because I’m scared! No no, it’s not a virulent form of adult technophobia, don’t worry! Let me briefly explain. Starting from April, 1st my office has the word “innovation” in its description: one of the most troublesome, misunderstood and expectation-bearing word in any language. Innovation is often mistaken for adopting the latest technology, being fond of new gadgets, eagerness to adopt the latest device. However, for me it means two basic things:
- clarify and review your basic objectives,
- then choose or invent the strategies and tools (and they will probably be new ones) to get there.
Or, in different and better words:
“As to methods there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”
Innovation starts with principles and caring; then it grows into methods and devices. Will I be able to live up to this statement? Will I be able to lead other people to this view? This is what scares me.
Until next time, embrace your principles.