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Insights / Blog / Business

Our laziness is the number 1 driver of technological progress

March 29, 2016
Alain VeuveAlain VeuveManaging Director, AOE Switzerland

No matter what image you might have of humans, you will agree with me that people like to have things as comfortable and easy as possible. This applies to big issues as well as small ones; we don’t really enjoy leaving our comfort zone. As a rule, we will consider anything that helps us improve our situation. If we can achieve these improvements without breaking out of our comfort zone, we generally have already won people over for something.

Collective comfort zone

You will counter, no, in my view it’s completely different, for there are people who are different, who like it when things are difficult. And yes, you’re probably right, there are people like that. This is because there is no consensus about a consciously defined collective comfort zone. Every person has different preferences. Because of this there are always exceptions. And people who would like things to be different. But we also have areas in which we have nearly 100 percent agreement. Simplest example: strong physical pain – is beyond the personal comfort zone of nearly everyone.

Intelligent things

In my article “The Internet will disappear! Get over it,” I described how, over time, we will equip many items of daily life with computing power and a database. And how these items will gradually anticipate our expectations and react accordingly in advance. And that the “intelligence” created in this manner will slowly but surely disappear from our perception. And that, in a way, these things will become commodities.

The comments regarding this article make for interesting reading. Particularly striking were the following:

Jörg Ribbecke, on LinkedIn

The human being has learned to do meaningful things. He has not yet learned to disregard the meaningless. Apart from that the question is whether the resources for this are available and whether we also want to use them for this.

I agree with this from my personal point of view. I consider many things to be utter nonsense, especially those things that can be summed up as new “innovations”.

" There probably is something like a collective consciousness about what makes sense to us and what doesn’t. As individuals, we are at the mercy of this, even though we are a part of it."

If, however, I try to expand my horizon (and go back a little bit in history), I don’t find as many things anymore that don’t make any sense. It’s more that new innovations and technologies are also subject to Darwinism. Those products and services that make sense to people prevail, the others don’t.

But, this doesn’t mean that these innovations have to make sense to each individual.

Underrated technology – once again

Other comments address the reliability and functionality of such intelligent things. And though I can follow the reasoning, I don’t agree with it at all. For, we already have much technology that supports us 100 percent and which is also available virtually 100 percent of the time.

One example is our water supply, which is also a technological achievement; in the Western world it is unconsciously available to us to such a degree that we are only aware of it if it doesn’t work (which, in Switzerland, occurs once every 40 years, or so it seems). Where the water comes from? How it is administered? Which processes are involved? I have no idea – especially because this is of no consequence to my everyday life.

These examples are numerous and it goes without saying that new technologies undergo an appropriate development over time in order to achieve this status. It’s just that, for the moment, we can’t really imagine this happening – just as a medieval page couldn’t imagine that water would one day be available everywhere and at all times.

The invisible hand – our laziness in word and deed?

In the face of this statement economists are likely to hyperventilate (which will likely occur several more times in the next years of Perpetual Disruption…). But one thing at a time.

If humans want to be moved outside of their comfort zone as little as possible, then this could be described as a kind of laziness. Not the sort of laziness that has a bad reputation, a laziness that wants to move nothing at all. But, we are true masters at achieving as much as possible with the least amount of effort. On the one hand, we are lazy in this sense, on the other we are never satisfied and in some ways uncompromising when it comes to making things even easier. How else can you explain pre-peeled eggs in the supermarket? (we will discuss values of this below, never fear)

To reiterate, this doesn’t need to apply to every individual, but I think it applies to us as a species as a whole. Taken in this context this is the driver number 1 in all our endeavors. And in the end, we decide what makes sense to us in its entirety through a simple trial-and-error process. The levels of this evaluation are:

  1. The economy (for the allocation of resources to solve a problem)
  2. Politics (for finding societal consensuses) and
  3. Religion/Philosophy (for balancing ethical radicalization of new ideas and innovations)

And the invisible hand as self-regulating element for efficiently allocating resources, well, it can be found at arm’s length directly next to laziness. I think we must say goodbye to these isolated concepts, which simply fall far short (and yes, I studied economics).

Values and laws are aggregate states of the development process

I therefore think we have relatively little influence on long-term technological developments. Sooner or later we accept everything that helps us make life easier, better or more comfortable. Sometimes the changes are radical and cannot be grasped on an individual level.

This is the moment where we hear statements such as “I don’t want to live like that.” I think statements such as this one are legitimate and claim the same liberties for myself in certain areas. But circumstances and situations change. And every day new people are born, who are just starting with the status quo of today – materially and immaterially.

Values and laws are initially a type of transition regulator. They change continuously and strongly – and will continue to do so. And this is a good thing, for otherwise we wouldn’t be able to make long-term changes for the better.

" That, which is ‘better’ today is that, which is ‘good’ tomorrow."

If you don’t agree with this statement, we don’t even have to go back very far to challenge your attitude. Spend an afternoon in your record office or state archives and read through old (150+ years) court decisions. This jurisprudence is incompatible in virtually every single point with today’s ideals and values.

The pressure decides

But on a personal level as well, you will make tremendous leaps of change, even within one lifetime, if you are forced to do so. All that is needed is for the pressure to be high enough. One of my favorite, often-used, examples: Imagine that you are completely against genetic engineering. You reject everything related to the subject and define as a kind of core value to not let anything genetically engineered into your life.

Unexpectedly, your child now becomes ill with a life-threatening disease and the only method with a cure is based on genetic technology. You can replace genetic technology with something else that you consider to be bad. Now, how would you decide? What would you do now?