X Is Not About Y: Technological Improvements and Cognitive-Physical Demands

by Gram_Stone 1 min read15th Jan 201710 comments


(I, the author, no longer endorse this article. I find it naive in hindsight.)


Recall the following template:

In some cases, human beings have evolved in such fashion as to think that they are doing X for prosocial reason Y, but when human beings actually do X, other adaptations execute to promote self-benefiting consequence Z.

I work in the sign industry, and it's worth knowing that the sign industry mostly involves printing images on cast sheets of polyvinyl chloride with adhesive on the back of it. This allows you to stick a graphic just about anywhere. Good-old-fashioned signs are now just a special case of vinyl application where the surface is a quadrilateral.

But sometimes, it seems like you could cut out the vinyl installation process: if you just wanted a solid white sign with some black text, and the substrate you're going to apply the vinyl to is already white, wouldn't it be nice if you could just print some black text directly on the substrate?

That's what a flatbed printer is for, which you can imagine as your standard HP desktop printer at 100x magnification with an unusually long air hockey table where the paper slot should be.

Now, when the management was trying to get the workforce excited about this new technological artifact, they would say things like, "This new artifact will reduce the amount of time that you spend on vinyl application, leaving you less stressed and with a decreased workload."

But when we actually started to use the artifact, our jobs didn't actually become less stressful, and our workloads didn't actually decrease.

I mean, yeah, we could technically produce the same number of signs in less time, but a corollary of this statement is that we could produce more signs in the same amount of time, which is what we actually did.

So, I propose the subtemplate:

Employer proposes the introduction of technological artifact X, ostensibly to reduce physical or cognitive demands, but when the employer actually introduces technological artifact X, they realize it can be used to increase output and do that instead.

I wonder if anyone else has more examples?