What technology tells us about society

The kind of technology we adopt says much about the kind of society that we are: what we value, how we talk to each other, and more.

Matt Asay Contributing Writer
Matt Asay is a veteran technology columnist who has written for CNET, ReadWrite, and other tech media. Asay has also held a variety of executive roles with leading mobile and big data software companies.
Matt Asay
3 min read

Twitter has become an excellent way to quickly scan headlines. It's terrible at just about everything else. It's hard to have a coherent discussion in 140-character soundbites, and even harder when the architecture of Twitter is set to "broadcast" rather than "discourse." But maybe, just maybe, Twitter's not to blame. We are.

After all, Twitter is simply a creation of our society, and reflects our priorities.

Not all of society, of course. After all, as The New York Times reported, teenagers, usually technology's early adopters, hardly use Twitter at all, with only 11 percent of people aged 11 to 17 using the service. They are, however, heavily into Facebook, preferring to share with friends rather than talk at strangers.

A generational thing?

Perhaps. But I think the technology we build and use says a lot about society.

Competition from Bing, Ask, and other search engines is just one click away and likely equally good for Google users, yet we stick with Google. Why? Because it's fast, free, and has never disdained its users with a cluttered interface. Many of us were with Google early on and continue to reward its early respect for its customers. We're a loyal people that likes a crowd.

This phenomenon is hinted at in personal computers, too. While I'm part of a rising group of people who prefers the Mac to Microsoft Windows, I'm also in a distinct minority, according to data from Net Applications. The reality is that most people look at their computer the way they do toilet cleaner: necessary to get a job done but not anything to get worked up about.

Contrast this to personal entertainment devices or phones like the iPhone/iPod. Here, Apple trounces Microsoft's Soviet offerings and Dell, a leader in enterprise computing hardware, has to go all the way to China to even register a design win. Apparently, we want to differentiate in our communications and our entertainment (iPhone/iPod), but not our work (computers).

Back to business. As well as open source is doing in enterprise IT, the reality is that CIOs and CTOs don't get too worked up about freedom and such. There's a very good reason that IBM, Oracle, and Microsoft dominate enterprise software, and "choice" is not it. These vendors simplify purchasing decisions by providing limited, but still good, choices.

Business, in other words, is business, not religion. OpenOffice is nearly as good as Microsoft Office in most ways, and better in a few. But it still captures anemic market share because it's simply not worth the bother for most enterprises or consumers. (Firefox, on the other hand, is, and continues to gain market share because we value the increased options its add-on library brings us.)

Open source is absolutely getting adopted, but only where it accomplishes tangible goals like cost reduction and increased productivity. As a society, we don't seem to want to waste hours of the work day fighting ideological battles. We just want to get work done.

Well, except for when we're furiously friending on Facebook during work hours, costing employers as much as 1.5 percent of productivity. You see, we're not all work and no play.

Which, incidentally, suggests that there just might be something to attempts by IBM and others to marry social software with enterprise IT. Our work lives are increasingly blended with our personal lives. They're just about the same thing.

All of which must increasingly be done in real time, as Twitter, instant messaging, SMS/texting, and other immediate or near-immediate technologies suggest. Even e-mail, which used to be considered "fast" communication, has moved to mobile devices so that it's omnipresent and, hence, that much quicker.

All of which raises the question, "Why are you still reading this post?" After all, you've spent 3,000 characters here in which time you could have already plowed through 21 tweets. Think of all the headlines you could have read. :-)

Follow me on Twitter @mjasay.