Is TECH the answer? (Or, how my old VCR taught me to appreciate the simple things in life.)

Is TECH the answer? (Or, how my old VCR taught me to appreciate the simple things in life.)

Sep 3, 2015, Article

Where would we be without tech? We’d be lost. Imagine life without your mobile, email, google? But we are now so integrated with tech we’re in danger of turning to it first, always, as the solution to any problem. Here I argue for the peaceful coexistence of hi, low and no tech in an increasingly complicated world. 

I remember when we launched our simple, no bells and whistles mechanical Tag Evacuation system at FireEx in 2010. On the adjacent stand was an impressive, advanced air aspirating system used to detect, at highly sensitive levels, the earliest indication of smoke. It was brilliant, and I was in danger of a massive inferiority complex. Was I doing the right thing? Would people get my approach? My immediate competitor was clearly using tech well, to its advantage, the product of years of R&D, and I couldn’t fault it for what it was and did. But it struck me, after that momentary doubt, how, within the cross-section of the fire industry’s products, we really had identified a huge gap in the market. All the companies I could see were offering high-quality tech-based systems in the common goal of saving lives and improving workplace safety. None were offering brightly coloured bits of plastic placed in slots.

My advantage was that I could explain my system in 30 seconds. And that my potential customers could explain it to their staff just as quickly. Watching the lightbulb moments of people at my stand as they suddenly realised how easy things could be, I knew I was on to something.

The confusion of choice

All people of a certain age (I unfortunately include myself here) must have been scarred by the ‘multifunction’ VHS player when it first invaded our living rooms. After the first ludicrously expensive models were laughed down to a reasonable price, the market suddenly erupted and numerous famous names from Sanyo and Sony to Phillips and Panasonic, vied for supremacy. To our cost, they did this by adding feature after feature after feature. All accompanied by a manual thick enough to lay a foundation block on a new house, and written in English only understood by the original author.

But at least you could set it to record your favourite programme two weeks in advance while you were on holiday – so long as you’d studied ‘Advanced VCR Operation’ in evening class.

It’s the curse of possibility. And tech product developers love it. They can’t help themselves. If it can be added, add it. If there’s a problem faced by one in a million customers, solve it and chuck it in to the mix. We have the technology, so let’s use it. Except that you can’t use it. Because so many eventualities are catered for, the simple stuff you really need every day is obscured, or worse, made unnecessarily complex. Base functionality has been compromised in favour of accommodating every known thing in the universe.

(There’s a seminal book on this subject, Why Things Bite Back: Technology and the Revenge of Unintended Consequences, by Edward Tenner, 1997. It’s a bit out of date now, but offers wonderful illustrations of the way technology can, if untamed, do the exact opposite of our original intentions.)

Another example. Any good mechanic, anywhere in the world can fix most conventional engines. So, what would you choose to drive around the world: a good reliable, honest to goodness Landrover Defender or the latest high tech equivalent? (Yes, I know the Defender is loud and compromised – I’ve had two – but for the right task it is reassuringly simple and dependable).

Don’t make me choose. Tell me what to do.

There is a shift away from this chaos of choice. A quick browse at the numerous crowdfunding sites reveals that many of the most successful ventures are low-fi, almost anti-tech. Simple, well thought through, practical solutions to common problems that in the past have been ‘solved’ by over-engineered products. Take a look at The Basics Notebook on Kickstarter for a good illustration of this in practice.

Critical systems can actually benefit from becoming tech-free. The old argument ‘less parts, less to go wrong’ holds especially true in extreme situations. In the safety industry, you should aim to remove the possibility of partial or total system failure at the time when it’s most likely to be relied upon. In my area of specialism, that’s evacuation. Clarity and 100% reliability in a potential panic situation go a long, long way.

Designing solutions that work as far as reasonably practicable ‘tech free’ surely gives the clear advantage of simplicity and robustness under stress. Why remove reliability for the sake of adding tech that does not provide tangible extra benefit, or does so at a risk of confusion, or worse, total failure at a critical moment?

Working with leading organisations that have highly sophisticated security systems we get to appreciate that these are, of course, of significant benefit on a day-to-day basis and used effectively to protect their people and critical business interests. However, disruptive unplanned events requiring building evacuation bring additional pressures and may coincide with power outages or a limitation of function of the normally relied upon systems. Adopting a clear, simple low or no-tech solution for such occasions, designed and tested to work effectively in an emergency can and should provide that additional level of comfort – when it’s really needed.

How your building is cleared, by whom, and how that information is then relayed to where it is urgently required (emergency services, operations managers, HR etc) starts with good evacuation planning, using systems that are proven to work – and super simple to understand.

So when we’re sometimes challenged by that lack of bells and whistles that would make our systems embrace tech, every time I am comfortable with our response: Is tech really the answer?