Tag Archives: social justice

Technological change is not additive; it is ecological

I spend a lot of my time thinking about the future in terms of engineering grand challenges, engineering education, and the impact that engineering can have on the world. I recently came across a 25+ year old quote about technological change that caught my attention.

“In the year 1500, after the printing press was invented, you did not have old Europe plus the printing press. You had a different Europe. After television, America was not America plus television. Television gave a new coloration to every political campaign, to every home, to every school, to every church, to every industry, and so on.

That is why we must be cautious about technological innovation. The consequences of technological change are always vast, often unpredictable and largely irreversible.”

Neil Postman, lecture at the Arts Center in Denver Colorado in 1997 entitled “Five Things We Need to Know About Technological Change

Technological change being ecological is one of five ideas that Neil Postman outlined in his lecture. All five ideas are:

  1. We always pay a price for technology.
  2. There are always winners and losers.
  3. The technology has a philosophy (epistemological, political or social prejudice). Sometimes this bias is to our advantage, and sometimes not.
  4. Technological change is not additive; it is ecological.
  5. Technology tends to control more of our lives than is good for us.

The entire lecture is interesting and relevant to the various forms of technological change we have experienced since he delivered the lecture in 1997. His lecture highlights the tremendous scope of impact that enablers of technological change have on our way of living.

Technological change is often at the hands of engineers. Recognizing this motivates engineering education to empower engineering students to be able to understand and influence the ecological changes that result from technological change for the better. This lecture will guide my thinking in this area in the future.

What do you think? Are these five ideas regarding technological change still true? How would you modify or add to the list?

queuing, cutting in line, and social justice

Page Six ran a story about wealthy Manhattanites who hire “black-market Disney guides” for $130 an hour (or $1,040 for an eight-hour day) to cut in line for the rides at Disney World. The guides are people with disabilities who, according to Disney rules, are allowed to take up to 6 people to the front of the ride lines.

At face value, this may seem like a good trade – people who pay do not have to wait in line. People who do not pay more have to wait. But of course, this is not how we really feel about queuing.

This story became popular because hiring guides with disabilities violates the social justice principle we associate with queues. First come first served, no exceptions! This is especially important since single line FIFO queues, like the ride queues at amusement parks, have the highest expectations of social justice. We are someone less concerned with grocery store lines with multiple servers and multiple lines, where a late-comer to one line can be served before someone who has been waiting longer in another line. We reluctantly accept the Law of Lines.

I blogged about the psychology of queuing long ago based on Dick Larson’s research on the intersection of operations research and psychology [Link]. Dr. Larson and his collaborators found that people are willing to wait longer on average to ensure that no one gets special treatment. Special treatment means that someone violates the first-come-first-serve queuing rule. Multiple servers with a single queue preserve social justice.

In reality, we accept many deviations from FIFO/FCFS queues. For example, frequent fliers can register with the TSA and pay an annual fee to get expedited screening at many hub airports. We accept this. Frequent fliers skipping the security queue is not unlike the wealthy people who purchase a “guide” at Disney to avoid waiting. The difference is that the TSA expedited screening is an official way for cutting in line whereas the Disney guides are working around the way the rules are intended to work (cutting via a technicality).

What are your favorite ways to avoid queuing?


Haiti and OR

Like many of you, I have been following the news from Haiti with disbelief and incredible sadness.  I am interested in hearing about how OR is helping with the relief efforts.  If you know of any such work, please leave a comment!