Perceptions of technology

I have been doing a lot of training and consulting recently where I have been speaking with clients who were not au fait with social media. Many of them ask me a question which is usually a variant of ‘why Google can’t do X‘ with a sense of disappointment.

The problem is less about technology, but rather our perceptions of it. These perceptions fail us in both short-term and long-term estimates.

In the short-term we overestimate what capability a technology provides. This comes down to a few things. First of all, all computation isn’t the same. Things that we think are easy to do are very difficult for a computer: voice and handwriting recognition, understanding irony or the context of a document are good examples. Secondly, we have a misplaced faith in the accuracy and reliability of computers. So things like sentiment analysis of blogs when done by a computer is at best going to be only 70 per cent right. 30 per cent wrong is a much higher failure rate than most people will tolerate.

In the long term we tend to underestimate progress. The Star Trek comm device and tricorder are good analogues for the modern mobile phone. Moore’s Law about the increasing complexity of silicon chips has kept on going despite being predicted to fail for the past few decades. Mobile phone companies never foresaw the ubiquitous nature of the cellphone over the past two decades and European engineers never released that customers would find a use for consumer-to-consumer communications for SMS on their handsets.