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Thursday, November 19, 2009

Our Expectations of Technology



As I was riding the Washington, DC Metro back to my station in Alexandria tonight, we had a short, unscheduled stop on the line somewhere around Reagan National Airport.  We got going again pretty quickly but clearly some snafu in terms of scheduling or proximity between trains had snuck into the system.  We had to wait a minute and then it cleared but as a result, I missed my shuttle connection in Alexandria by about twenty seconds.  Not a big deal but it was annoying.  When I got back to my hotel, I read about a much bigger technical snafu in the FAA's air traffic control system that happened earlier today.  Apparently, a circuit board in Salt Lake City went bad and it resulted in hundreds of flights being delayed or cancelled across the country.  This was much more of a problem then my little experience on the Metro tonight.

Both these events, however, got me to thinking about how much we take a fully functioning system for granted in this country.  We expect our systems to work virtually perfectly all the time.  We have this expectation because for the most part, they do work all the time.  Visitors from other less fortunate countries can attest to their own much more limited expectations about how well (or more likely, poorly) their technology infrastructure operates.

Expectations are based on many things but two come to mind: past experience and time.  If our past experience says that something has worked well, we typically extrapolate the future based on the past - we expect that things will continue to work well.  The other, maybe trickier piece, is time.  As time gets shorter, expectations rise.  When an event only happens infrequently we don't put as much dependence on it happening right on time.  If a book I order from Amazon comes a day late, no big deal.  But if an event typically has a shorter time lapse (measured in minutes or seconds), we come to have high expectations that it will happen as planned.  If instead of buying a physical book, I pay for an electronic book for my Kindle and it doesn't download inside of a minute, I feel like I am getting subpar service.

As it turns out, railroads did the same thing back in the 19th century.  When ships, canals, and wagons were the primary modes of transportation, most travel happened on timescales of days to weeks.  If a boat didn't leave until a day later, people adjusted because they didn't expect much better.  When the railroads came along,  as many trips ran in a day as a canal boat would run in a week.  When a train was late by even an hour, it seemed very late indeed. The railroads reset our expectations about travel.  If you want to read more about the effect of the railroads, I recommend a book by William Cronon entitled, Nature's Metropolis:  Chicago and the Great West, (Norton, 1991).

Technology seems to have subtle, built-in expectations that are associated with it.  We either feel it is working well or not working well depending on how it seems to measure up to those expectations.  Tonight, the Metro didn't measure up and I was miffed...but not as much as the airline passengers sitting at the airport.  I expect that this blog will get published as soon as I hit the button.  Our technology life is like that.

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