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Good Technology: The Rules
Taran Rampersad, 11 Apr 04

We talk about technology a lot. I write about technology a lot. It permeates our world and is beginning to affect even the most 'Digitally Divided' places on this Big Blue Marble. But how many of us truly understand what makes a successful technology? It seems that someone figured out what makes a technology 'good'. Or perhaps, successful. But I think they missed one.

Nine Rules for Good Technology by Robin Good (courtesy eLearnSpace) is a simple read, and will probably cause quite a few people to simply nod. We take some of these things for granted - and some things we have a tendency to ignore within context (such as the bus example given).

But do these nine simple rules define 'good technology'? I suppose it depends on what we consider 'good' to be; so I shall make it a list of 10 items.

The tenth item, and perhaps the most important, is that a good technology should increase the quality of our lives. This doesn't mean only creating a technology; this means managing it.

Mankind has done abhorrent things with technology - indeed, some of our greatest breakthroughs have been made during times when our humanity seems to have gone on vacation. And yet, we turn around and try to apply the technologies to make the world a better place.

How do we manage technology? Should we charge Scientists and Engineers with the responsibilities of good technology? Perhaps. But we need to look to our society as well; we need to become aware of how technologies impact our lives. From software to file sharing to nuclear energy to nanotechnology to the human genome.

One of Richard Feynman's anecdotes involved a Buddhist temple in Hawaii, where a priest told him that a man is given a key in life. This key opens both the Gate to Heaven and the Gate to Hell.

This is preaching to the choir; anyone visiting this site knows this. That's what WorldChanging is about - it's about making the world a better place. Yet even as we do this, we need to let others know that they are not just along for the ride, they are participants. Together, human society can make the world a better place through technology and other means.

We just need to be aware, thoughtful, and active.

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What do y'all think of the "Precautionary Principle" - the idea of assuming all new technologies are harmful until they're proven safe?

Seems like a lot of the potentially worst stuff: genetic engineering disasters or nanoparticle carcinogens or what have you, could be delayed or avoiding with this kind of approach... but would we have made it this far if we used it in the middle ages?

Are you pro- or anti-precautionary principle?

Posted by: Vinay on 11 Apr 04

Well, I'd have to say that I agree with the principle, but I disagree with the Principle. I always question the motive.

The underlying reasons for the research are most important. The Scientists and Engineers may simply respond, "Because we want to know/do it.", and as someone with this mindset, I sympathize. But this research costs money; it's rare to find people and organizations who will fund research and don't stand to profit from it somehow. Cancer research, AIDs research - these are things that will affect people positively. Yet there's a danger in some of this knowledge as well.

There's also ethics involved with the research - hard questions that must be answered, and it's not for scientists and engineers to answer them. It's for society to answer them. This requires discussion within society.

Posted by: Taran on 11 Apr 04

Vinay, we've done a post on the Precautionary Principle here at:

linking to some good insights from Dale Carrico.

Posted by: Jamais Cascio on 11 Apr 04

Taran, not to worry, your tenth principle is captured in more classical rules of design. For the history buffs out there, the first design principles ever written down were by the Roman architect Vitruvius, and they are "firmness, commodity, and delight". Most of Good's principles enumerated here are elaborations on "commodity", and as technologies become more complicated we'll need even further refinements here. "Firmness", likewise has been expanded to mean more than just not physically breaking. But no one's ever elaborated much on "delight"; perhaps it needs to be said that it extends to society, the Earth, and future generations as well as the immediate users.

Posted by: Jer on 12 Apr 04

Jer, I agree that these concepts have been captured, I am simply pointing out that they need to be remembered. :)

Posted by: Taran on 12 Apr 04

My first thought on reading the "nine rules" article was that it seemed very focused on public-facing information technology as its definition of "technology." (This is hardly the only place that happens... the BBC now divides news up into "Technology" and "Science.")

Can these rules be used to evaluate technology, if technology is thought of more generally? How can we decide if the turbine is good technology? Penicillin? The MRI?

Posted by: Christophe on 12 Apr 04

Why is there such an emphasis on never having to know how things actually work?

I mean, sure, you push a button on your radio and it's on. But you have no idea that you can pick up shortwave broadcasts, that you can use that same radio to send out your own broadcasts, or maybe even hook up your guitar pickups through the tape deck?

Abstraction destroys functionality, good use of technology is based on GOOD EDUCATION.

Posted by: Ben Hunt on 13 Apr 04

Why is there such an emphasis on never having to know how things actually work? - Ben Hunt

Well said, and I share your perspective on that - but we also have to take into account that most people just don't want to know, and most people don't need to know.

If we were to ask people to explain how three-phase electricity worked, most wouldn't know. But most people use it every day, and gain benefits from it.

Most people who use a computer don't know how it actually works - or how the software does what it does - and yet they still gain benefits from it. In fact, some of the new software developers in the world don't really know how a device driver works, and they don't know how the hardware works either. Ohm's Law made way for Moore's Law (and most people don't really understand Moore's *Observation*, anyway...)

The point is that science and technology (Christophe) have become daunting to many people. I agree that more people should be interested, but I think it's unrealistic for us to say that they need to know how it works. And yet, if they knew how it worked...

Here's wishing more people became interested.

Posted by: Taran on 13 Apr 04



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