When Technology Lets Us Down


(from tcbuzz’s flickr collection)

Two recent events from the UK underlined how dangerous our dependence on technology can be.

The soccer UEFA Cup final in Manchester was overshadowed by riots when one of the massive screens installed in the city for fans who didn’t have tickets broke down.

And more recently, the inquest into the death of a former BBC editor found that she committed suicide after failing to find support among her colleagues. Her line manager, the inquest heard, tried to find her counselling:

However, her manager sent an email to the wrong address and his request was never acted on.

Technology is passive, and doesn’t take into account the implications of failure. In the first case the technology either didn’t work, or those setting it up didn’t know how to work (or fix) it. In the second case, the error was more obviously human: the sender of an email did not enter the correct address, or did not enter the address correctly.

This is more about our failure to anticipate failure in technology, and our blind dependence on it working.

Obviously, it would have been smart of the organizers in Manchester to have had a back-up plan in place for an eventuality like a screen breaking down. And the line manager’s apparent failure to see whether the email arrived at its destination or even to have picked up a phone and tried to reach the counsellor directly.

But perhaps there are ways for technology to further help us by providing a layer of redundancy? In the case of the screen, could there be some sort of diagnostics test which would alert the technicians that something was amiss, or about to be amiss?

And, in the case of email, the answer is perhaps simpler. There are tools out there to determine whether an email has arrived safely and been opened. The one I use is MessageTag, which will inform me whether an email I have tagged with the service has been opened. (The advanced service will give me a list of emails I have tagged and show me which ones have been opened, and which havent–a very useful checklist to show me which emails I need to follow up on.)

(There are privacy implications with services like MessageTag/MSGTAG, which I’ve gone into before. But sparing use of the service, I believe, is acceptable, so long as you give recipients the option of opting out of future tagging. Other people use the receipt acknowledgement option in Microsoft Outlook and some other email programs.)

We perhaps need to be reminded that technology, as it stands, won’t save us from ourselves.