The ‘Word,’ That Could Change Our World
Posted by intellisg on July 30, 2007
You would have thought one of the hardest problems for any technologist to grapple with is the nuts and bolts making a product work. In fact, nothing can be further from the truth, the annals of tech history suggest, making stuff work typically constitute only 12% of the success factor. This leads us to consider what’s the other 88% that kills innovative ideas from emerging triumphantly into the market place? What’s the name of the grim reaper that lurks in the wings responsible for this dismal rate of failures?
Do you want to know his name? Do you want to know how kill him before he cuts you down? That could just be the difference between ending up as a statistic or getting ahead of the crowd.
The culprit isn’t a person, institution or even a body that we can really finger. Rather it’s a functional task that each of us perform at least 173 times a day, without even realizing it. Hardly a science when you consider even housewife’s, butchers and storekeepers use it regularly to make sense of the world. In its most polished form its even considered a discipline and thousands of students even enroll in university each year to study it – what is it?
The art of classifying things.
Recently management experts are just beginning to trace the co-relation between the task of classifying things and how this seemingly benign day to day activity has the disproportionate ability to tip the balance between success or failure – it’s brings into sharp focus the perils of classification. Now many of you may saw, well this is hardly the stuff of diamond cutting, more to do with running a library or Museum. So really what’s the sum of its impact? Think again!
Remember, the Segway? You know the machine they said would change the way we all work, live and play? Where is it now? Well it’s a dead duck to put it mildly. Most of them that survived are languishing in theme parks being marketed as joy ride machines for a buck a spin. The rest have probably ended up in the pound melted down and recycled into toasters. The Segway serves as a cautionary tale of what can and will go wrong, when the task of classifying “new” technology takes a wrong turn.
Let’s take a closer look at this case study to see whether we can learn anything from it.
Conceptually, the Segway was a product that made so much sense that even the most skeptical industry experts couldn’t see how it could ever fail. Myself, included I might add. For one it had all the streaks of a winner – dead pan simple to operate, requiring only 5 minutes of instruction, think left and it goes left, think stop and it stops, think reverse and it reverses. Can’t get more simple than that!
The other compelling reason was the argument, why should anyone in their right mind haul their 80kg ass around in an one metric ton automobile burning fossil fuels and adding to global warming? Makes as much sense as throwing out canon balls to move a boat forward right? The Segway uses 1/1,530 of that same energy at a cost of less than a dime per kilometer and even comes with an environmentally friendly stamp of approval. You can’t get better than that, any better and you might as well hire Mother Teresa as your publicity agent.
Despite all that the Segway promised – very little of the dream materialized. In fact as the story of the Segway unfolded it has all the spoofs of a detective novel, leaving one with only one question: who killed the Segway?
At first all the fingers pointed to the greedy automobile industry. You know those guys who buy all the patents for motors that can run on water only to lock it away somewhere in some safe in Alaska, so that we all keep having to fill up on our tanks with expensive fuel. We all know the Segwag was going to eat into their market share so those fat cats put the words out of the streets, “waste that mother…” Is it such a wonder the Segway was bumped off the kerb? Classic case of hit and run. Right?
Nothing can be further from the truth, all the evidence suggest the demise of the Segway was the victim of congenitally skittish regulators who couldn’t even successfully classify it, as either an automobile, bicycle or shopping trolley?
In fact, they(the regulators) couldn’t even classify into an known category to decide whether, it could even be used on pavements! Let alone decide on the finer details like whether it could be used on road or whether users were supposed to even wear a crash helmet when they ‘drive’ a Segway. Or would ‘pilot’ or ‘steer’ be a better ‘classification?’ See what I mean.
The hubris of classification and how it typically produces disabling obstacles which can even kill a good idea faster than a cyanide pill!
As bizarre as it seems, at one time, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) even classified the Segway as a “powered industrial truck!” Hey, hold on a second, I know you’re thinking this is like on of those thrillers where someone loses their credit card only to get their whole, name, face, insurance policy, social security all wiped out by the baddies, but that ain’t far from the truth – that what happens when the task of classification goes all wrong.
Did those evil bureaucrats rub out the Seyway? Well technically no and this will feature as a repeater throughout this paragraph. Technically at least, believe it or not, they (the regulators) were spot on! After all who could fault them, the Segway used an industrial sized classified battery, technically they were right – it even used a class of drive train fell within a classification normally used by electric milk trucks, so again technically, it was a “heavy motorized vehicle” and to cap it off it was even fitted with heavy duty threads normally used for industrial vehicles, so technically, it was as good as an sixteen wheeler – the key word that plugged the Segway wasn’t so much the technicalities as the way in which they were classified.
Despite being righter than ‘right’ in so far as ticking off all the right decision boxes to derive at a ‘right’ classification of what-is and what-isn’t. No one can deny the Segway case study suggest it was so ‘right’ to even be so ‘wrong’ as to deny it the possibility of being accurately described as simply a very novel and effective way of transporting people.
The Segway serves as a cautionary tale and highlights what can go wrong when the task of classification goes awry but there is a cruel twist to this tale. It brings into sharp focus Arthur C. Clarke’s prophetic warning “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” And raises the question for researchers, policy makers and technologist: why couldn’t they successfully bottle up the ‘magic?’ It’s hardly child’s play, when you consider getting the classifications wrong simply means disabling instead of enabling, killing instead or nourishing, it’s nothing short of infanticide –a travesty of justice!
And this leads me to my main plank: Why? What happened here? What went wrong?
As a researcher I am the first to admit that the task of classifying is one most important priority, what we typically call a first order protocol i.e like washing your hands before surgery, only because it sets the direction and cadence of research. Get the classifications wrong and you might as well throw everything out of the window, it just means you’re digging in the wrong place or worst a grave for yourself.
Having said that what needs to emphasize is as humanity and technology continue to move up along the learning curve. The task of classifying things, ideas and even something as simple as what should or shouldn’t be considered a blog or what is or isn’t a mobile phone will gain a new sense of urgency and purpose in our age. Classifying is far from being an easy task. In fact academics, politicians and even the security council in the UN spend most of their time quibbling over words, concepts and schools of thoughts – that’s how important classification are in the scheme of things.
Neither are there any clear road maps to suggest the task of classification holds the promise of simplicity, not an enduring one at least in the advent of the digital age. How could it? When we consider for instance, the brief history of mobile phones and how they have evolved through the years. First offering the basic function of communication only to evolve into camera’s, voice recorders, photo albums, video cams, global positioning tools, personal organizers etc. I mean the myriad of functions that the mobile phone offers today even suggest the term ‘phone’ is a misnomer. That hardly even captures the full spectrum of what it offers or how users even make sense of this technology.
There in a nutshell lies the hubris of the task of classification in our age.
What we really need to appreciate is there are no definitive answers, be it phones or blogging it simply a chasis that people regularly build on and because the configuration remains endless. Even the best attempts at ‘classification’ is bound to disenfranchise a segment of users. Now some people will say, well that fine, at least we get most of it in the bag, but what if those who slip through the net happen to be really exciting inventions like the Segway?
The stakes are high, not only for producers, but those who research, regulate and try to make sense of technology trends. Using the metaphor of the phone, it highlights the overreaching effect of something familiar can all too easily slip into the realm of the alien even challenging our most established notion of what is.
Understanding the underlying dynamics of the push and pull effect of how technological changes will affect us all will be key. For example what is a blog? Or for that matter how would you classify the function of an aggregator like the Intelligent Singaporean? Are there only two classifications in the internet? Well that’s like saying, they’re only fixed and rotor winged aircrafts. It makes perfect sense till of course we see something that doesn’t quite fit into our model of the known world. Some like this:
Those square pegs suddenly don’t quite fit into those holes now – Do they?
That’s what regularly happens when classifying takes a wrong turn. Everything gets confused, we find ourselves in a neighborhood that’s like down town Mogadishu, instead of where we want to be and everyone is screaming “I don’t want to die, I don’t want to die!” in the car.
What this highlights is the challenge that producers, academics, regulators and even ordinary folk (like you and me) will increasingly face as they attempt to make sense of the world. It brings into sharp focus the need to strike a balance between form and function without sacrificing one at the expense of another. It will remain a challenging task only because the task of classification remains an indispensable organizing principle if knowledge is to proceed directionally and instructionally in this new age. Without proper classifications even the most menial task such as importing and exporting information between different roles in an enterprise and to enable them to view and manipulate the information as well as get insights out of them would simply be reduced to the task of building the tower of Babel.
We can no longer run away from the task of classifying anymore than we can stop the sun from rising – it remains an indelible tool set of charting progress – as it remains our tool for organizing logic.
Only remember this, the stakes are high (I realized, I have said this at least 3 time! Only because it bear repeating again and again) and the challenge will be to find that ‘sweet spot’ where everything just comes together happily.
Before I leave, allow me Dr Chandra to pose one question to all of you readers: what is the Brotherhood Press? You know what? To be perfectly honest with you, I have absolutely no idea! They certainly aren’t a blog. Neither are they are they an aggregator. That could well be just the step in the right direction – admitting that we don’t really know what it is. As my friend darkness once put it so beautiful in his concluding travelogue in his recent visit of Stalingrad after successfully disturbing (again) a girl and inviting her out for dinner,
‘It’s a start, a very good start.’
Dr Chandra 2007
(This has been brought to you by Aurora your friendly brotherhood controller – By Dr Chandra [ICM], Vollariane [BP] & Mandrake [ICM] ( Advisor: Darkness) [This paper is a collaborative effort between the BP and the ICM Troupe: The word that could change our world / Technology / Policy – 2007 / Extended Piece (ES 400395 – ICM – The Brotherhood Press 2007)
[The Brotherhood Press would like to congratulate the Dr Chandra for his contribution, this is his first paper written under the BP tag]
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