Wandering Thoughts archives


People are not ignorant (usually)

One of the eternal complaints in the computer world is, roughly, 'people are ignoring this marvelous thing because they are ignorant' (and its flipside version of 'people are only using X/doing X because they don't know any better'). A closely related version of this (arguably the same one) is 'people would use X if only they really understood how good it is'. You can fill in the blank here with any number of technologies, often classical ones; these days, you can add various practices that people are not doing (or doing) to the list as well.

If you say this, you are probably dead wrong, at least at a global level. There are two reasons for this. The first is that this is a form of ignoring the real problem; creating a technology is only the start of the work, not the end of it. The second is that to the extent that people actually are ignorant of your marvelous thing, there are almost always good reasons for this. To put it one way, generally people are ignorant about your thing because it is not important enough for them to be informed, and in turn this is generally because your thing is actually not a significant enough advantage for them to matter (not once you add up both the advantages and the disadvantages involved).

(What a lot of this comes down to is good enough versus better. Is X better than Y is the wrong question to ask; the right question is whether X is enough better than Y to justify switching if you are already using Y and there is a lot of support for Y and so on. And even when the answer is yes, there is a lot of momentum behind any existing decision.)

To put it another way, saying 'people are doing this because they are ignorant' is a comfortable slam that spares you the bother of asking uncomfortable questions about why. Both why people are ignorant and then once you get past that, why non-ignorant people might still make a different decision than you have. Any time you're tempted to explain something this way, you should be very certain that the people in question really are acting out of true lack of knowledge and that they would make a different decision if they knew more. Otherwise you do not really understand the situation, which is a great way to go badly wrong.

(It is also a great way to insult people, which has all sorts of effects that you are unlikely to want, at least if you genuinely want people to adopt your marvelous thing. Sometimes I wonder about various groups that are prone to this behavior.)

tech/PeopleAndIgnorance written at 23:19:59; Add Comment

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