Tech Is Never The Problem

Professor Devi Sridhar serves as Global Public Health Chair at the University of Edinburgh and is the author of Preventable: How a Pandemic Changed the World & How to Stop the Next One. When asked how she thinks we did with Covid in a recent interview on the New Scientist Podcast, her reply was bittersweet:

I think we’ve actually done remarkably well, especially compared to 1918 […] because of how many lives have been saved by vaccination. […]

The real tragedy now is having vaccines available and the supply not being there in many low-income contexts. So, again, preventable deaths happening now in low-income and middle-income contexts because of supply and in high-income contexts like the United States because of misinformation read on Facebook and other platforms and the anti-vax movement.

So in a way, we developed the scientific tools remarkably quickly, and a whole range of them […] but the tragedy is now of actually how do you get the jabs into arms

The contrast between the success of vaccine development and the failure in their rollout is a reminder that focusing on technology alone is not enough.

Tech is never the problem, nor the solution. All problems are people problems.

Anti-vaxxers and the general lack of trust in the government and the scientific community has nothing to do with the tech and all to do with failure in communication—and a whole lot of inepts in position of power.

Tech is only part of the solution. We ought to keep this in mind, and not only when dealing with a pandemic. When working in tech, it’s far too easy to focus on solving tech problems when really we should be focusing on people problems.

Tech problems are self-contained and compelling. People are multifaceted and don’t behave according to mathematical laws. That’s why, I think, most tech folks default to the former and neglect the latter.

The startup graveyard is filled with teams that focused on their tech and forgot about their users. Focusing exclusively on technology is also the source of many disagreements between software developers. We often have different opinions on how to implement something. When discussing them, we think only of the code, forgetting about the feelings of the people involved. Code is temporary; ass is forever.

We face some epic problems these days, climate change being the most critical. We already have tech solutions and the ingenuity to create even more of them. It’s time to focus on the human side of the equation.

Cover image by Michael Dziedzic on Unsplash.