Technology always involves tradeoffs. Every tool created by humans has situational strengths and situational weaknesses. The trick is to figure out how to balance the risks with the rewards. Then you can make intelligent decisions about how to use technology.
Consider, for example, the question of computer security. Is it safe to use a computer that’s connected to the internet? Depends. If you don’t know how to avoid scams, and you leave the computer open to hackers, then it’s not safe. The hackers are getting smarter, and the scams are getting more clever. But most users are plodding along with the same mindset, generally they’re lax about security. More to the point: they don’t understand how to properly assess risk and reward in the digital world.
Why would so many people use passwords like “password” or “123456”? It’s because they just want their lives to be easy and believe that picking a simple password is the easy way to remember it. In other words, they’ve traded off easy-to-achieve security for lazy simplicity.
I have a very successful friend who’s made loads of money investing in hundreds of large-scale international businesses. I don’t know anyone better able to weigh the complex risks and rewards inherent in deciding whether to invest in a large company. However, when it comes to assessing simple trade-offs involved in using his trusty laptop computer, he’s completely naive and vulnerable.
For example, my friend can’t make a basic decision about his email. His IT guy set him up with a shared account on an Exchange server. And the IT guy charges him a too much money (according to my friend) to just manage his email. My friend says his Mac-based Outlook program runs slow and constantly spins a beach ball. So, sensing that I know something about technology, he asks me what he should do.
I ask him a few questions about what he wants from an email program. He says his number one priority is to be able to search his 10 years of old emails (which his IT guy reports is 7 GBs of data). He says his old emails are like his filing cabinet of key information from all the business deals he’s done. He says it’s vital that he be able to quickly search his old emails.
I know what I’d recommend to him, but I tell him to talk to my friend Paul, a smart guy who does tech consulting but doesn’t charge too much money.
Paul tells him that he should migrate his old emails to Google Apps and pay $50/year instead of the many hundreds of dollars he’s now paying. The effect would be (1) save money, and (2) be able to search old emails with the power of Google. This is what my friend said he wanted. After listening to Paul explain the rough method by which the migration would take place I tell him I agree with Paul.
And it seems like my friend is now on the path to a better “email finding system.” My friend tell his IT guy what he plans to do, and that he wants him to work with Paul to get it done.
At first, The IT guy says fine.
A few days later, however, he sends an email to everyone (copying me as well) explaining the negatives of “having a cloud based email system,” and of “not having complete control over it.” The IT guy tells him that with Google’s cloud-based email he won’t be able to work on emails while he’s flying. My friend can’t reconcile the negative tradeoffs he’s hearing about from his IT guy with the recommendations he’s getting from Paul. He becomes exasperated and annoyed with everyone for not being able to give him what he wants. He demands that action be taken immediately to end his spinning beach balls.
I read the flurry of emails going back and forth and wince, glad that I am not an IT guy who has to work with people who rely technology, but don’t want to do anything to understand it—folks who just want to issue orders, and expect results.
My friend’s problem is a common one among tech-unsavvy folk: he wants incompatible things. He wants a result that is the product of no tradeoffs. He doesn’t understand how cloud-based email works, even if it’s explained to him several times. My friend (even with access to top-notch advisors) isn’t competent to make basic decisions about his technology, not even the simple stuff that most 15 year olds figure out for themselves.
Awhile back, my wife set my friend up with a password management program. She explained to him the importance of using tool that would allow him to have strong passwords, and the simplicity of working off of one master password. She set it up for him and then trained him to use it. He tried it for awhile but complained constantly that the program wasn’t working properly.
He quickly gave up on the program because he found it too difficult. I’m not sure how he manages his passwords now, but I hope he’s picked something more secure than a phrase that’s in every hacker’s “dictionary attack file.” I hope that, but I really don’t expect it. My friend doesn’t understand how to parse tradeoffs that apply to computer technology.
In short, he’s the guy at the poker table wondering who the sucker is. Except the poker table is connected to the Internet, and has millions of players. And that’s a really dangerous place to be if you don’t know how to make sound technology decisions.