A rant about IT and losing our grip on reality.

<rant>

Foursquare just gave me extra points for having checked in at airports continuously for the last eleven weeks. This is a dubious distinction. In that time I have been to Riga, Amsterdam, most major cities in Australia, Hong Kong, Washington and Dubai. As a result I have gradually lost my grip of reality. My circadian rhythms are no longer disrupted by jet lag as they have no idea any more what they are meant to be. I have seen so many amazing things, and met so many interesting people, that life is starting to blur. It is in this context that I am awake at 4.00 am writing this rant!

My travels finally brought me to Dubai – a place that has a very dubious grip of reality. Outrageous building projects; ex-pats chasing the beach front idyll and wandering round shopping malls in their spare time; and multinational corporations and ubiquitous international brands swamping any remaining indigenous culture. A nightmarish vision of a future protecting itself and removing itself from the rough edges of the real world. 

I am clearly particularly attuned to this loss of a grip on reality at the moment due to my personal circumstances but it is also what troubles me generally about modern life. It is what troubles me about corporate culture. The gradual loss of a grip on reality, the slow anesthetization of staff through endless obsession with process, the loss of passion and true engagement. I saw this in the well oiled machine that was my hotel in Dubai. Superbly efficient systems and impeccably professional staff but soulless and inhospitable in a deeply unsettling way. While writing this blog post I have been engaged in an email exchange with the hotel reception. Despite me being on a pre-paid half board basis, and despite the provision of complementary water in their rooms, they sent me an invoice just for the water I had with my meal, They then and end their contribution to the ensuing time wasting email exchange with the salutation “be re-energized” – give me strength!

This feeling of unreality culminated in an encounter with my daughter’s ICT teacher at a school progress evening last night. It would be indiscrete to go into the details of the conversation, but both he as an individual, and those setting the ICT curriculum, have clearly lost their grip of reality. They are lost in the anesthetized world of Microsoft Office based process. This issue is endemic. He is not alone. My work for the last seven weeks has been with those involved in the provision of corporate IT in various forms and at various levels in all sorts of organisations. It was clearly “the good guys” who were going to self select and bother to turn up and hear me but their stories of working in IT left me troubled. As a community they are losing, or have lost, the plot. They are buried in process, banging on about Big Data, remote from the realities of the web based world their organisations now inhabit, and like those crazy buildings in Dubai soaking up energy and costing millions in a way that merely exacerbates our increasing divorce from the reality of the world around us. 

If we don’t find a way to recover our grip on reality we will come a cropper. Remember how in the eighties the financial sector sneered at those of us sensing the unreality of their claims to be fueling growth of the economy? Look what happened to that. We need to break out of this advertising fueled running away, this buffering ourselves from the harshness of the physical world, wrapping ourselves in psychic cotton wool, kidding ourselves that our ever more complex and ever more pervasive systems are going to protect us. They are part of the problem. They are the boiling water that the frog is sitting in. We are deluding ourselves and fiddling while Rome burns.

</rant>

21 thoughts on “A rant about IT and losing our grip on reality.”

  1. "the slow anesthetization of staff through endless obsession with process, the loss of passion and true engagement."

    With too much process comes the swallowing whole of passion which then (ironically perhaps) sucks employee engagement into the vortex of Orwellian fate.

    It’s no rant Euan; it’s a sad reality.

    Can we not let our employees make decisions for themselves? Can we not empower them such they are engaged to do the right thing first?

    Or, on the other hand, you could have a scotch.

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  2. Your rant is timely and resonates with me Euan. 2013 needs to be a year for a [massive] reset.

    People tend to connect around where the sense is for them or, alternatively, where they believe their needs will be met but, like Pavlov’s dogs’, those beliefs are often the product of conditioning rather than a true and more mindful inner knowing.

    This seems to be a process of Darwinian selection, a grand lottery, in which millions are unaware they have been sucked into a capitalist vortex that has spun out of control.

    Keep telling as it is Euan, it gives the rest of us the confidence to hum a different tune. Only by collectively being canaries in the great post-industrial coal mine can we find a way out of this miasma and make connections that can take us further as an evolved society. Maybe between us more people will hear it.

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  3. I worry whether some people can make decisions for themselves. I watched a colleague get overly involved in someone else’s role justifying system, in order to ask for a change to be made to another system. The whole transaction should have been a conversation, but ended up being carried out without a single word being spoken…other than a few choice words to me which I won’t repeat.

    Our slavish dedication to systems is stopping people talking to people. Those of us who chose the red pill realise this. Those who chose the blue need our help.

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  4. I’m reading your last paragraph and thinking about all your air travel over the last 11 weeks, and what that’s done to your carbon footprint. Even if you’ve offset, well…. http://www.cheatneutral.com/

    PWC, IEA, World Bank are all suggesting we can kiss goodbye to global warming being kept within 2degC.

    We are boiling the water, and we are the frog.

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  5. All very true. The basic disconnect between ‘ideal IT’ and what actually has value to achieve a real-world aim needs to be re-examined. I continually deal with IT vendors and specialists who have lost contact with what is actually of value to an end user and what is simply a ‘best-practice’ solution. All too often, they try to persuade me what I need and sell me the services and solution, without listening to what I actually need. Best practice and the ideal have become the enemy of the immediate, practical and good solution. And at massively inflated cost if I need a ‘proper’ database, and a ‘proper’ solution rather than something driven by business. Mediation between vendor, analyst and decision-maker is failing as we become increasingly specialised.

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  6. "They’ by and large still haven’t recovered from the force-feeding of IT and impressive bills that accompanied the implementation of re-engineered processes and the large ERP systems that got poured over those processes. I think that decade + may have changed IT forever. Oh and it certainly changed what was meant by ‘change management’ (i.e endless training sessions for employees throughout the organization on how (and sometimes ‘why’) to use the new system(s).

    As I was saying to an old friend of ours in an email exchange the other day (he who used to write the blog Wealth Bondage) <i>"The life has been re-engineered out of our lives".</i> It will take (quite) a while to unlearn, undo and recover from the period 1990-2005, I fear.

    I think we see the pernicious effects absolutely everywhere. Most organizations have gone through extensive re-engineering and sometimes may be more efficient, but the customer is almost always now the prisoner of the business process (eg your experience at the hands of a nobly-trained hotel staff 😉

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  7. I think most people live in a state of arrested development. The corporate world has become a make believe world like the Matrix where we play act at life but are not alive or even human anymore.

    The good news is that I see more and more young people who just cannot live like this. One of my god daughters aged 28 is having her crisis right now. She thinks there is something wrong with her – but she will see soon that she is the sane person living in a mad world.

    Why I so look forward talking with you about "Growing Up".

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  8. Of course, I am sure we are all mindful of the irony that this "conversation" is only made possible by enormously complex technology, delivered economically through vast scale and the opportunity for companies to make a profit from doing so 🙂

    So many ideas came into my head reading your post that I’m not sure I can thread them logically in a comment, so I’ll just throw some out there…

    increasing dependence on vastly complex technologies (and not just the internet) that can only be delivered economically by specialists
    as a consequence a growing separation between how people live their lives and how the things they use are designed and made
    in other words, most of us have no idea how must of the things we use to live our lives are designed, made or operated
    as a consequence of this together with perennial need for growth, a media-fuelled growth of a consumerist approach to everything
    a real dichotomy – delivering things consistently at scale to meet basic people’s service expectations needs process and automation, the very things which reduce human flexibility to deliver the real underlying service value (as typified by your comment about the hotel)
    the 90’s management fads for re-engineering and mass automation, products of the Analytic mindset (see http://flowchainsensei.wordpress.com/rightshifting/the-marshall-model/ )
    large industries (such as IT) which have grown large and with the expectations of vast profits based on those years (exactly as Jon says in these comments)
    the increasing alienation between those who know how to make things and those in power (this might be a particularly English phenomenon?)
    as a consequence people in power making decisions (including purchasing decisions) that are utterly uninformed and which play right into the hands of the large techno companies (etc)
    political dogma triumphing over facts, leading to mandates on large institutions to do something in a particular way regardless of measurable efficacy or the true resulting services to the end user (see John Seddon’s writings amongst others) – – the ICT curriculum that you mention is just one example of this
    to return to a technical metaphor, is the answer about where you look in the "stack"? For network, storage and compute I love being able to buy a commodity service at the swipe of a credit card. If I can adapt what I do so it fits in the inherent constraints then platform as a service is pretty useful too – but the more you get to how the applicaitons work and how people interact with them, the more I want it to have a human face, and the more I want to deal with small groups of people who can deliver through network effects rather than monolithic scale…
    or for a more domestic view, I’m happy to buy my new floor from a large supplier (I don’t actually want to make the planks!), but I choose a small firm to lay it, based on personal recommendation, because they are coming into my home and are doing something that I will have to live with

    </jumbled thoughts off>

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  9. Cracking comment Julian.

    First response is agreement at the contradictions. I was aware of starting my rant while sitting in an Emirates 380 and enjoying an experience that totally depended on the same sorts of systems and processes that had made me uncomfortable in Dubai.

    Not sure about the comparison with the internet though as one of my sources of hope is that it’s anarchic aspects are more human than the dull hand of sensible grown ups that affects so many work places.

    And this is where I think the answer to Maria’s question lies – and what was behind a lot of my book. Helping people to understand and take advantage of their increasing ability to have a voice and fragment some of the centralised power that is part of our problem. One person at a time, not a "movement", not an ideology, not even revolutionary, except perhaps in a quiet gentle sort of a way, but more an evolution away from mechanical thinking and back to something more organic and productively messy.

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  10. "an evolution away from mechanical thinking and back to something more organic and productively messy."

    I dream of this.

    Makes me think of when I took trips around Europe and Ireland when I was 18-19 year old, staying in bed & breakfasts owned by little old ladies that were all a little peculiar. You never knew what to expect, least of all have a brand experience. But what you got was totally real.

    Many would leave for work, while I sat with gf eating breakfast in their kitchen, just stopping to say, "Slam the door when you leave and have a nice trip." No one said "feel re-energized" but that’s just how you felt when you all left.

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  11. I think you may have something there Euan – the power of a thing that rests solidly on largeco (the Internet) to empower.

    Lot of that empowerment is about disintermediation, and the power of the small to reach a long way – the saviour of Karl’s small B&Bs

    But look at how large entrenched power bases have fought back at Internet disruption of their gravy train – eg the content cartels

    The ultimate disintermediation would be Internet-enabled democracy – do we really think the elected gatekeepers are going to stand back and let their role be made obsolete?

    Is it all ultimately dependent on oil? What happens when that is gone? What will we be saying about the 90’s and noughties in 10,15,20 years?

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  12. Quickly – I did not need to read this today. I’m sitting in gripless-reality central command at #dellworld. Can’t give up the fight. I suppose that this escape hatch (this blog diversion) exists, gives me hope. Thanks Joachim Stroh for the heads up to this post. Are we the new underground railroad for corporate humanity?

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  13. Sorry, having arrived here late! Great post Euan, to the point, relevant and (some might argue), controversial. I wished I read this before writing a post that I’m publishing tomorrow (Thursday) on the same sort of theme. I’m not sure I want to go back and re-edit it now, but the angle I’m taking is that technology – and specifically social media – is having a de-sensitising effect on human relationships. A sort of paradox of "social media being unsocial". I’m thinking of the ‘one-button-does-everything’ mentality and the rise in frictionless sharing. This a brief abstract from my post:

    "But are we losing something in this morass of news and information, made possible by simple one-click interfaces and frictionless sharing? I only realised through a conversation with a friend that her relationship with her now ex-boyfriend, was predicated on a whole new protocol of ‘Unfriending’ on Facebook. You no longer have to have a face-to-face discussion to end a relationship; it can all be done with a click of a button!"

    This sort of resonated with your points about technology and losing our grip on reality. I seem to be heading into the start of 2013 with the feeling that things are going to get worse before they get better! But on that happy note – hope you and your family have a great Christmas!

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  14. Euan, I hope that you will not leave us with the bitter taste of technology running roughshod over our lives in future posts. I echo your sentiment without exception, however I struggle with the contradiction of seeing the problem, being able to define the problem, yet still unable to provide clear and coherent tools, intents and actions to help be part of the solution.

    Any insights? Is there a place where we can collaboratively work on solutions even while Rome is burning?

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  15. I don’t think it is actually about technology at all Joshua. It is more about a mindset that we have slipped into unawares. Open source software, social networks, entrepreneurial startups, there are lots of ways to work that envisage a different world from the one I was reacting to in the post and all to some extent use technology.

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  16. Euan – this is a perfect Open letter! I just discovered McSweeny’s fascinating collection of Open letters – it would be wonderful if you shared this with the world (Send your nonfictional open letters to openletters@mcsweeneys.net). And no, I don’t work for them.

    On another note, you raise so many points that resonate with me ‘…. the slow anesthetization of staff through endless obsession with process, the loss of passion and true engagement.’ There are still people like me ‘ who have a heart’ and are not totally consumed by performance reports, and playing office favourites (do you sense my rant….), with the conviction that there is more to life, and meaning beyond the innumberable facades of perfection, and gloss that consume most of the world!

    Thank you.

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