May 29, 2022 4 min read

How Technology Dumbs you Down

Technology promises speed but there are often downsides to it.

When reading the next book, attending the next course or even while reading this article, consider what we want from it. Are we looking for a formula that is proven and guaranteed?

There is a downside to the convenience and speed that technology promises. Same with trying to make leadership formulaic.


What technology and formulae steal from you

Heidegger and others have written about how technology can take over our lives. In an insightful and simple explanation of what technology steals from you, Hubert Dreyfus gives the example of the GPS.

While making life easier and convenient it also robs us of developing the skills of navigation. [3]

But notice the hidden cost to this advance. When the GPS is navigating for you, your understanding of the environment is about as minimal as it can possibly be. It consists of knowing things like “I should turn right now.” In the best case this method of navigating gets you to your destination quickly and easily.

But it completely trivializes the noble art of navigation, which was the province of great cultures from the sea-faring Phoenicians to the navigators of the Age of Discovery.

To navigate by GPS requires no sense of where you are, no sense of where you’re going, and no sense whatsoever for how to get there. Indeed, the whole point of the GPS is to spare you the trouble of navigating.

– Hubert Dreyfus in All Things Shining [1]

Are we as managers trying to spare ourselves the trouble of leading and managing?

Are we looking for a GPS when we are reading a business book, attending a course, or doing an MBA?  A GPS for our work and lives that will give us turn by turn directions and that comes with a guarantee? Something that will save us frustration and disappointment?

We want the outcome but not the process, the destination but not the inevitable challenges along the way, the skills but not the struggle to learn them.

We are looking for the quick fix, the one-minute solution because we claim we don’t have time. We want to be spared the struggle and agony of grappling with things and having to figure it out.

There is a superficiality and lack of depth that comes from "technologizing" aspects of our work and lives. And people pick up on that. This is why techniques and tactics don’t build relationships and don’t work in the long term.

Human beings are too evolved not to pick up on the subtle cues when we try a technique on them. Even when the techniques do work, its worth noting what it does to us as a person. We tend to become more shallow and lacking depth.

Perhaps none of us wants to be that person.

Technology promises speed but there are often downsides to it.
Caroselli di Maiali, Robert Delaunay, via Wikimedia Commons

No shortcuts in the human domain

We are looking for the shortcut. Except there aren’t any when it comes to the domain of human meaning which is where leadership lies. Humans are anything but predictable and mechanical.

It's this very non-predictableness and non-mechanicalness that makes modern knowledge work and knowledge workers possible. Innovation and creativity by definition are not predictable. But the very systems that are supposed to help are designed to enforce predictability and mechanical behavior.

We try to impose the old command and control methods that were derived from running and optimizing mechanical systems and processes. We want our teams to be creative, adaptive and resilient but we end up, inadvertently, killing the same.

Mastering meaningful distinctions

Mastery of any domain requires us to learn what Dreyfus calls meaningful distinctions in that domain whether that’s surgery, golf, or leadership.

The achievement of skill involves substantially more than the mere acquisition of a physical ability. Learning a skill is learning to see the world differently.

The skilled surgeon, for example, sees something more than a broken and bloody leg; he sees a particular kind of break, one that requires this precise surgical technique to fix it. Likewise, we hear people say that the successful running back has “great vision,” the point guard has extraordinary “court sense.”

In each case this means that the person’s skill at surgery or running or passing allows them to see meaningful distinctions that others without their skill cannot.

– Hubert Dreyfus in All Things Shining [1]

Technology to a large extent exempts and prevents us from having to learn meaningful distinctions and thus robs us of depth and nuance.

As long as it is something we don’t want to learn about, this is ok. But if it is in fact a domain where either technology is not going to work or we do want to learn more about the domain, then technology can actually hurt us from getting better.

This is a job of paradoxes, dilemmas, and mysteries that cannot be resolved. The only guaranteed result of any formula for managing is failure.  

– Henry Mintzberg in Managing [2]

Perhaps, as leaders and managers, we should spend more time trying to learn the meaningful distinctions of our domain instead of  looking for the quick fix. I myself am guilty as charged for trying that and falling on my face.


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Footnotes & References

  1. All Things Shining by Hubert Dreyfus
  2. Managing by Henry Mintzberg
  3. As an interesting aside, the US Navy is going back to teaching navigation by starsinstead of relying solely on satellites.
Sheril Mathews
After a 20 year stint in various technical/management/leadership/ positions in the wilds of corporate America I started LS to help leaders & high performers level up their game.
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