A lot of us look at our lives, the technology, the things we have, the things we use and feel very fortunate. We are. A lot of us think that all of this is good enough. A lot of us are wrong. Too much of this thinking ultimately leads to decline and “good enough” turns into old-fashioned and backwards looking nostalgia. In the case of technical problem solving the things that are good enough are a scaffolding for the hard problems you are asked to solve. Often this scaffolding becomes a box you construct around yourself. It can ultimately limit your ability to solve the problem rather than enabling you. As Clay Shirky says,
The systemic bias for continuity creates tolerance for the substandard.
Or if you prefer Frank Zappa,
Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.
I see the issue coming up even in the most high tech settings. At national labs the super high tech computer models that are used to analyze deep scientific questions are often viewed as being good enough. This leads to the horrible tools called legacy codes. Today’s new codes are tomorrow’s legacy codes. Once you decide the tools you have are good enough, you’ve stepped down the road toward mediocrity.
I’m not talking about pursing progress for the sake of progress, but rather seeking progress where it is available or needed. A mix of things is always available. Some forms of progress are available and are equivalent to simply keeping up. Other forms of progress are associated with an acute recognition of what is limiting your current capability. Balancing these aspects of progress can result in a healthy situation where we move forward. One should always have a deep appreciation for the shortcomings of your current technology and knowledge with a taste for how and when it is holding you back.
What happens when the attitude is “things are good enough”? One form of this happens when people cut themselves off from the state of the art. You see it in technology, but also things like entertainment. This is where “oldies” radio stations come from. People just get tired of keeping up and begin to live in the past. They get tired of trying to understand and appreciate new art forms (like rap, but remember at one time Jazz was edgy!). Even worse is the inability to focus on improving situations that are problematic. This become an attitude of accommodation instead of pushing to do things better.
The attitude of accommodation of limitations is part of the issue. Of course, one person’s major advance is another person’s painful technological change. Institutions are like people, as they get older, technology starts to become frightening, or simply tiring. This may be close to the core of the issue. Technology fatigue. People just don’t want to make the effort to do anything new because of a lack of proof or confidence of improvement. It is simply easier to believe that what we have today is good enough.
Why go for a mobile phone? The phone in the kitchen or bedroom at home, or your office is good enough. It seems odd today, but many people went through the phone calculus and decided mobile phones aren’t worth the cost or trouble. Seth Godin puts this in context,
If it scares you, it might be a good thing to try.
It took a technology that clearly took phones to whole new level, the iPhone to push the technology. Now the people who haven’t made the change are a small slice of the population without either the inclination or resources for a mobile phone. What made the difference? The iPhone was more than a phone, it was a mini computer that put the Internet at your fingertips, and new modes of communication into play. All of these pushed the mobile phone over the line. As Steve Jobs famously noted,
Creativity is just connecting things
In my home we haven’t had a land-line phone for over a decade, but I still have one in my office. My employer should get rid of it. They won’t, but they should. My wife and I are naturally progressive and interested in new things. I worry that my employer isn’t quite as progressive as they should be, and their attitude on phones spills over to other things. They have made huge strides with modern electronics and I have hope. They still have issues with integrating cutting edge research into the delivery of major products. There is too much acceptance of old technology and good enough thinking is far too easy to find. Given their devotion to Edisonian mode engineering, they might do well to listen to Thomas Edison’s advise,
Restlessness is discontent — and discontent is the first necessity of progress. Show me a thoroughly satisfied man — and I will show you a failure.
One of my colleagues has a great saying,
you’re never good enough, you can always improve.
This is the sort of thing that gives me hope. We need a lot more people like him.