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Are we making technology too easy?

The Iowa Caucus app debacle reveals there is little real technology literacy, just technology functionality.
Read time 6min 10sec

I bet someone in the US’s Democratic Party is very sorry they ever heard the phrase: “There’s an app for that.”

They greenlit an election app that was meant to streamline votes gathered during the party’s first elections towards the next presidential contest. Instead, it was a complete disaster, ranging from incompatibilities to crashes to users not even able to download the software.

Fortunately, the vote’s paper processes could spot flaws and eventually deliver a reliable tally. But the app’s failures grabbed all the headlines. It delayed the results enough that the whole bandwagon ‒ candidates, media and the party itself ‒ had already moved to the next battleground.

One comment I see frequently mentioned during autopsies of the failure is that you shouldn’t give an app to ‘boomers in basements’, as the elections were often in community areas and featured older people as party representatives.

But this app was spewing problems and generic error messages that a seasoned technologist couldn’t interpret. No amount of elite gen-z fiddling would have fixed or bypassed the issues. But we make that assumption because, you know, old people can’t google.

It’s a common trope, one that ignores that a lot of representatives were in their 30s and 40s as well who know how to google. But it’s much more convenient to talk about doting old grannies trying to make sense of newfangled gadgetry than to admit a starker reality.

This project was done too late, too sloppily, and with no regard to deployment, user training or change management.

The simple truth is that gen-z and other generations are not much more technology-literate than older people. They are just more au fait with its interfaces and user experience logic. It’s not much different to understanding how a Tupperware lid works.

I can prove this. A 10-year-old can seamlessly navigate any phone’s more arcane menus. Yet, there is no study I know of that states 10-year-olds are any better at security. In fact, I’ve yet to see a report claiming that millennials or whatever gen-suffix you want to name have the edge over security.

All I encounter are articles conflating data privacy and security, which are different things. Frankly, if you don’t understand security, I doubt you actually understand the basics of technology. No matter how ‘savvy’ you are.

We call people technology-literate, but I would instead say ‘technology functional’. Just as someone can be functional about driving a car, yet have little grasp or appreciation of car maintenance, many people can use technology but don’t understand it.

This concept solidified with me when SASSA once claimed it could switch its systems in a matter of months, a claim very few questioned. Yet anyone with even a passing grasp of modern ICT would know the agency’s claim was ridiculous. Many educated people who inform the rest of us missed that fact entirely.

The same can be said for all the vitriol against Facebook. I see such articles emerge almost every day. Full of depth and references to other sources, these articles nonetheless still routinely misunderstand the nature of technology and the problems it creates. We can also add the constant calls for ‘encryption back doors’ to the list.

The Iowa Caucus app disaster puts this situation to the fore. Do you want to know why that app failed? They only started developing it two months before it was needed and introduced key people to it less than a month before primetime. It was distributed through a beta-delivery network and not an app store, and followed a series of convoluted security steps that ultimately locked most people out of the app. The app wouldn’t work on many different phones, including relatively new flagships.

This project was done too late, too sloppily, and with no regard to deployment, user training or change management. Somehow, nobody questioned those shortcomings, which leads me to ask: who greenlit this app in the first place?

I have no doubt they thought they were onto something good but didn’t actually understand the complexities or implications involved. All they could gather is that it’s an app, and since they use apps on their phone with no fuss, then an app is a good idea!

In other words, no real technology literacy, just technology functionality. They knew what an app could do, but not what an app really is, or how difficult it is to build. Worse ‒ somewhere some technology-literate individuals thought they could succeed in two months with no proper testing, training or deployment strategy.

Sometimes people are confident about something because they don’t realise how little they know. It also happens when people who know a lot overestimate how much others know. This is a hypothesis called the Dunning-Kruger effect. The Iowa Caucus app appears to be a perfect combination of both effects.

If a leading political organisation can trip over this mistake, I suspect it must be happening all the time. In an act of selection bias, I found a Gartner study from 2017 that claimed enterprise app development was stagnating. Many app projects aren’t working out, likely because the decision-makers overestimate their understanding of technology, while technologists are happy to pander to those emotions.

This phenomenon doesn’t stop at apps. Banks are admitting that all that money spent on new technology isn’t necessarily translating into benefits. These changes are indeed hard to measure because we are changing paradigms. The benefits for switching from steam to electricity weren’t easy to find at first, either, and cost a lot to realise.

But I don’t recall the technology world consistently warning about such uneven benchmarks either (not until after the sale). Instead, it was all made to look so simple, because it was courting an audience familiarised with simple technology interfaces.

I’m for more accessible technology. I am so happy my printer uses USB and can’t potentially blow my motherboard. I refuse to use network cables when WiFi gives my devices the freedom to move. E-mail has improved my world, and so have digital cameras, GPS, and many more modern breakthroughs.

But none of these render me technology literate, just technology functional. Literacy requires a lot more knowledge and critical thinking. Yet we’ve been training the world to confuse the two, and now otherwise bright people are greenlighting significant app development two months before they are needed. Two months! If you don’t understand why that is too little, then you shouldn’t be making those decisions…

* James Francis is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in several local and international publications.

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