This essay is being written after numerous and somewhat frustrating encounters with the latest information technology. One would think that we’ve reached a point where systems and computers should work flawlessly but that is less and less the case every day.
On the one hand, the Information Revolution of the late 20th century has resulted in an anywhere, anytime information society that has become accustomed to boundless gobs of information on demand.
On the other hand, no one has said that the stuff works.
From a technical standpoint, the advent of true ubiquitous computing (or at least, state-of-the-art ca. 2011) has markedly changed our attitude towards and interactions with information. Our constant exposure to information leads us to have the expectation that it will be shared across systems, accurately and quickly. If Facebook and Google can keep track of everything we are reading, sharing, and writing while we surf the Web, surely everyone else can too, right?
Unfortunately, information does not always get to where it needs to be. I’ll use my recent experience with an airline as an example. Airlines are known to be leaders in IT; American Airlines introduced the first ever computer reservation system, Sabre, in 1960. At the time it was one of the largest and most successful mainframe deployments ever.
Today, despite tremendous advances in technology over the course of 50 years, information often fails us. Calls to customer service representatives at call centers asking the same or similar questions yield widely disparate answers, despite the fact that the agent is being guided by the system.
My own experiences in the past week relating to several different issues with an airline, including an error that was apparently computer generated as well as misinformation that was repeated by several agents almost verbatim, show me that we have a long way to go.
It won’t surprise you to learn that fixing these problems took multiple phone calls and e-mail messages and wasted hours of time both on my part and on the part of the call center agents.
We used to say that computers don’t make mistakes, but rather that the people who write the programs do. I believe that this belief has become somewhat quaint if not obsolete. While we are far from enjoying true artificial intelligence where machines actually think and respond on their own, we are at a point where autonomic or self-healing systems do evolve on their own, and sometimes seem to add in mistakes just to keep things interesting.
We want the right information on demand, without delay, without error. As we add in more information, more systems, and more ways of getting information, what we end up with is something very different.
Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex and author of Overload! How Too Much Information Is Hazardous To Your Organization.