Adam Fields (weblog)

This blog is largely deprecated, but is being preserved here for historical interest. Check out my index page at for more up to date info. My main trade is technology strategy, process/project management, and performance optimization consulting, with a focus on enterprise and open source CMS and related technologies. More information. I write periodic long pieces here, shorter stuff goes on twitter or


Should the ignorant be deprived of capabilities about which they don’t know enough to demand?

I think this is really important.

Technology has completely pervaded our society, and the complexity of these systems has increased to the point where important, sometimes critical, distinctions are very easily missed by an inexperienced populace. (Maybe this isn’t a new categorization – I’d welcome references for similar observations.)

This concept comes into play with the DRM debate – content companies are pushing for technological restrictions on copying. The tradeoffs in such restrictions are not understood by the majority of the populace. They just want to buy a TV. They don’t care, or don’t realize up front, that they’re being locked into a platform that may prevent them from watching TV the way they want to (timeshifting, recording, etc…), at some unspecified point in the future.

It struck me that this is exactly the same as the debate about whether VOIP service provides “911 service”. The general public has a very specific idea about what “911 service” means – “if I call, someone will show up and help me”, but they don’t necessarily know anything about how it’s implemented. They don’t know anything about how it’s staffed, how calls are routed, what other assumptions go into provding that kind of service on a 24-hour basis. The various VOIP services seem to offer a wide range of things called “911 service”, and not all of them qualify under the definition above. To be a little fair, this distinction is drawn in the fine print, but not necessarily in terms the average person can understand.

Does my grandmother really understand the distinction between a full-service 911 center and a “Public Safety Answering Point”? Should she have to, in order to get a phone where people will come when she dials 911?

Should the ignorant be deprived of capabilities about which they don’t know enough to demand? Should those who understand the tradeoffs stand by and allow it to happen without speaking up?

I’m not sure what the answer is (I’m thinking about it though), but one thing is clear – the nature of the transactions that people are being called upon to engage in, just to get by on a day-to-day basis, has recently changed drastically. I’m seeing more and more evidence that even the very technologically sophisticated are losing the ability to make these tradeoffs in an educated way.

One Response to “Should the ignorant be deprived of capabilities about which they don’t know enough to demand?”

  1. Anne Says:

    This happens in medicine all the time. As a physician, I am called to interpret data and make choices for my patients. When I am prescribing a blood pressure medication to a patient, I can choose between multiple different classes of drugs, and then within that class, different medications, many of which have different effects and mechanisims of action, which may affect the long-term health of my patient. As a professional who has taken an oath, I am ethically bound to make good decisions for my patients. However, I know that other professionals do not have such a duty.
    As technology becomes more complex, lay people will have to depend upon professionals to make decisions for them – but where is the Hippocrates of the computer world?

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