Special Report: Info Tech

As a culture we are addicted to the new. The promise of change brings the promise of improvement. Indeed, science fiction was invented to provide change beyond the limits of the present.

The Star Trek TV series is corny, cheesy, and fun. The series has influenced society’s expectations of culture; flip phones and PDAs take their form factor from communicators and tricorders. You can have your computer make dinner reservations and provide a map on how to get there.

Yet, there are also unfulfilled promises of what technology should do. In the future presented by science fiction, no one is homeless — or even overweight. Recent decades have made science fiction’s predictions commonplace. But still today, unfortunately, people are homeless, hungry, under-educated, under-employed, and face a host of other physical, social, and cultural deficits and challenges.

Nevertheless, the nonprofit sector has embraced technology as a way to improve what we do and will likely revolutionize (or at least evolutionize) what we do into the future.

Change comes about in odd, unanticipated ways and from unexpected sources. One of the first changes made with Star Trek: The Next Generation was to substitute “to boldly go where no man has gone before” with “…where no one has gone before.” Small, simple, and politically correct.

Part of the adoption of technology into society in general, and the nonprofit sector in particular, has been little changes like that — clarifying and including. Other changes involve taking what was planned and doing something new and unintended, as simple as calling your own answering machine to leave yourself reminders.

The patterns are simple: one involves creating opportunities out of infrastructure changes, the other is a Darwinian cycle of new products and their acceptance or demise. Looking back at how we’ve become a technology culture, and how those promises have become unintended reality can help us see where today’s innovation will find a use in the nonprofit sector.

How technology developed
It’s interesting to note that three of the great technological achievements of the 20th century had defense origins.

Modern computers based on binary arithmetic are the descendents of military machines developed to calculate ballistic tables for the Army during the Second World War. The development of digital architectures allowed computers to move away from tabulating engines into logic processors. This in turn enabled applications to become less about calculations and more about information. Software became increasing soft, moving from a world without word processors in 1975 to email-enabled cell phones today.

The second and third technological achievements were communication-based: the interstate highway system and the Internet. Both were intended to help the American military respond to armed threats. The interstate system allows forces and weapons to be moved from one coast to the other in a manner of days. The Internet was designed to withstand nuclear attack by providing a flexible and decentralized set of connections among computers.

Because so many universities had military contracts, they joined the network and soon co-opted it for their own purposes, mostly collaboration by shared files and then to let people know that new files were available, email and Usenet newsgroups emerged.

Later, as computers running on operating systems such Mac OS and Windows made graphics more accessible, these exchanges enabled the development the Web.

The lesson to be learned from the concrete and electronic highways is that communication infrastructure creates opportunity, and that growth happens organically and independently.

One of the great opportunities for the nonprofit sector in the future is that we have our own branded part of the Web. Dot-com has become synonymous with the concept of ill-conceived business plans that lead from riches to rags. The nonprofit dot org domain has not lost any of its luster in the recession. Indeed, many nonprofit Web initiatives proudly proclaim that they’re intentionally not-for-profit.

During the early hours of the September 11 crisis, much of the world turned to the Web for information. In the aftermath more people turned to the Web as a way to deal with the tragedy, some by personal expression, many by making contributions. There’s a nonprofit lane in the information superhighway and, looking forward, that becomes a way to help people understand more about the sector in general and how it is important to their lives.

Another parallel between physical and virtual highways is that just because you build it, they may or may not come. As the novelty of the Internet diminishes, marketing and message return to their fundamental importance. Even though online giving is still a small percentage of charitable contributions, donors (and the press and just about everybody else) looks to the Web and email for information about the credibility of the organization. A Web site, like any roadside attraction, needs branding and content to be attractive to those new Sunday drivers, the surfers.

The next big communications infrastructure change is security, and it is being driven by the defense concerns after September 11. Biometrics in particular will create new opportunities to authenticate individuals in the physical and electronic worlds. However, it will also bring a debate on how finger print identification, retinal scanning, and other automated recognition systems affect personal privacy.

While infrastructure creates opportunities, Biometrics and other new technologies follow a particular pattern as they are identified and incorporated into the culture.

Adoption patterns of IT
Some technology professionals refer to the user’s unrealistic expectations about what technology can do as the Star Trek Syndrome. Because they’ve seen it in a movie, they assume that it’s available now. While the movies set a bad example, the worst way to set expectations is not to watch a movie and to listen to a salesman.

Hype is first motivator of adopting new technology, especially in the nonprofit sector, where we are prone to hyperbole. New ideas and technologies are embraced because they free us from the limits of today’s ideas and technologies. Whether it’s “word processing will create the paperless office” or “XML will allow data to flow smoothly between organizations,” hype is the leading indicator of a new technology.

When new technologies and software get in the door, hype changes to disillusionment and suspicion. Early adopters will tell horror stories of how their expectations were not met, how the budget crumbled, and how not much is different. For a while the greatest water cooler horror story was how a 50-page document just disappeared from the computer or only half of it would print. The disillusionment phase tends to send about as negative a message as the hype phase spread promise. It is also the place where less robust products will disappear into oblivion.

One of the by-products of suspicion is experience, and more widespread and realistic adoption of technologies. This third phase, adoption by the technically proficient, brings the practical benefit of the technology into regular use. The acceptance of word processing was done by people who were motivated by very complex documents. It was a high art at first, and required significant training to undertake.

Eventually, the new technology is integrated into the workplace, often with unintended consequences. Word processing became a standard part of document production by the late 1980s, with the consequence that offices today consume more paper than any other time in history. Similarly, email joined many offices by the late 1990s, but with the consequence that spam and chain letters constitute a major part of the average inbox.

Finally, the technology becomes transparent — invisible as a technology and seen only for the work it does. No one thinks about the telephone, photocopier, or fax machine. They are tools that everyone expects to be there. They have infrastructure and support costs, but those costs are generally predicable. Everyone has to be taught how to use the office phone system, but they generally understand the features available. Word processing is now ubiquitous in most offices, but the standards and practices of how it is used vary widely.

And that brings up the issues of unintended consequences. Instead of creating the paperless office the word processing revolution has created the recycling office. Drafts, revisions, misprints, reprints all contribute to a new mountain of paper. That transformation has happened subtly, and many workers have never been in an office that was any different.

Likewise, highways made suburbs viable, and many families left the inner city, leaving the poorest to remain in neighborhoods with reduced resources. Nonprofits have stepped in to fill the vacuum by providing cultural and social services. What role we play in providing services through the new communications infrastructure, and, more importantly, to serve those who do have access to that infrastructure, is still emerging.

New technologies solve current problems, but those solutions bring different results from what was originally intended — and a raft of new problems that the next technology will solve.

National security initiatives will create new infrastructures that present new opportunities. No one can predict what will result from these opportunities, but we can predict the pattern. Every 18 months our computers will get smaller and faster; new software can do things that are now important, but weren’t even on our thought horizon a year ago.

We have to change. We want to change — Star Trek tells us that. But while the bulk of society moves ahead, we in the nonprofit sector deal with the social impact of change by helping those left behind by those advances. If we use technology well, we can create the ultimate unintended consequence out of hype — civil society.

Tim Mills-Groninger is the associate executive director of the IT Resource Center in Chicago.


NPT staff writer Jeff Berger also contributed to this story