Does Technology Create More Problems Than It Solves? The Linn Effect Says Yes

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I recently wrote a post that touched on the failure of Google Glass, a failure based, many people believe, on concerns about privacy and the way in which Glass could “broadcast” people without their knowledge. The article created a lively debate about Google, Glass, and privacy, which got me thinking about something I call The Linn Effect.

imagesThe story behind this phenomenon goes back about ten years, to a time when I was overseeing a large system implementation for a global high-tech client. We were about a month or so from going live, and I began to get the feeling that the client expected that the new system was going to make most of their known supply chain planning problems go away. That was in fact the case, but it was also going to expose and even create a whole set of new issues that were, at that moment, invisible to the client. This was going to happen because, pre-system, a lot of problems were being solved by human-human interaction, and not in any technology that left a record. This class of problem was about to be made visible and would expose many previsouly unseen challenges to the senior management team. In addition, the system itself would ask new questions and demand new processes that would, in turn, create brand new challenges for this one client. Realizing that it was quite possible that in the end, despite the project’s success, this particular company would end up with more challenges to solve than it started with, I told them the following true story.

My roommate in graduate school, Boudewijn DeLoose, is a Flemish engineer who lives in the lovely town of Ghent, Belgium. Boudewijn has been a devoted audiophile since we met, and his dream was to one day own a Linn stereo. For those of you unfamiliar with Linn, it is a very high end manufacturer, based in Scotland, with legendary reputation. Well, Boudewijn, who is now a senior executive at Bekaert, the Belgian metals company, called me not too long ago, because he finally bought his Linn system and wanted me to come to Ghent to hear it.

Soon afterward, I happened to be in Europe, so I took a detour to hear this amazingly expensive (and I do mean expensive) system. I brought with me a favorite CD (Stan Getz’s “Focus” for anyone curious) and took a seat in his listening room, prepared to be blown away. But a funny thing happened when the music started. I was speechless, but not for the reasons I had anticipated, for instead of sounding great, the music sounded terrible, much worse than in my system at home. In fact, the more I listened, the more annoying the sound got. Seeing my reaction, Boudewijn asked me what I thought of his prized Linn. “I hate to say it,” I replied, “but it sounds awful.” To which he exclaimed, “Yes! Isn’t that amazing?” Confused, I asked him if the whole point of the tens of thousands of Euros he had just spent was to make his CD collection obsolete? He said, and I will never forget this reply, “No. What you just heard were all the flaws in your CD, which were inaudible to you in your normal stereo. It takes a Linn system to see all the problems with the music. Only the Linn can faithfully reproduce the bad recording. That’s the beauty of the Linn.”

I told this story to steering committee at my client and then explained that the Linn Effect is anytime a technology solves one problem but creates the same or more problems at the same time, in other words, P > S. Facebook, perhaps is another example of The Linn Effect, since I definitely think that in the popular imagination P > S would definitely describe that social media phenomenon. I think the same could be said about the iPhone, Twitter, cars, and a whole bunch of other inventions, maybe even the Internet itself.

A friend of mine once even suggested that the Linn Effect applies to all technology. My first reaction was that this conclusion had to be wrong. What about the lightbulb? Or an MRI machine? I mentioned this last technology to a radiologist friend, and her response was interesting. In her view, the Linn Effect is real but ultimately beneficial. She put it this way:

While your premise is definitely true, I don’t think this is a bad thing. Complexity (advancing technology in this case) creates new problems, which then require new solutions, and so on… But isn’t this how the whole world advances? For example, when the first MRI machines were made and used, the images were not very good for multiple reasons (poor signal, weak RF gradients, inhomogeneities in the magnetic field, various artifacts that sometimes mimicked pathology, etc.). Tackling each and every one of those problems resulted in more problems, more solutions, and so on, until we reached the unbelievably beautiful images we are now capable of acquiring. If Google Glass is another MRI machine, then I am pretty sure quite a few people will make their living for a while trying to solve its problems.

So maybe the Linn effect is both universal and, ultimately, beneficial? Maybe if we look deep enough, every new technology, when all is said and done, does create more problems than it solves, and that’s OK. Maybe the right way to state things is to say that the Linn Effect is anytime a technology solves one problem and creates the same or more problems at the same time, which in turn create new solutions?

I’m not ready to make any overarching conclusions yet, but I am pretty sure that the fear of the Linn Effect killed the idea of Google Glass in the minds of many people. We’ll have to wait and see if the good side of the Linn effect, brings us a second version of Glass that avoids the same fate.

PS: Since I posted this article, I have received many messages about whether or not the Linn Effect is universal and thus applies to all technology. Interestingly, the trend seems to be “yes,” which technologists among the most adamant in that position. I am not there yet personally, as I noted, but I find this reaction interesting.

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