Let’s imagine that I am presented with a problem: I need to help people be more capable physically. They need to be able to lift heavier objects than they currently can. And I am asked to use technology to make it happen.
I spend some time studying the problem space and–logic elided in this story–narrow it to two paths: one is an exoskeleton style harness, and the other one is a muscle-building machine.
The exoskeleton will amplify the individual’s minute movements and allow them to lift objects with little or no effort. It’s really easy to get into, and it fits like a glove, and it’s super-easy to learn.
The muscle-building machine is basically a fresh take on the exercise equipment. It’s smart and will guide the person toward their goal, but still require effort on their part, the time and sweat to increase their strength. It’s just as user-friendly, but in a “supportive, yet firm coach” type of way.
I ponder which path to take. From the perspective of achieving the immediate goal, the exoskeleton seems like a perfect fit: not only the individual’s physical capability is increased immediately, it’s also awesomely scalable. If I get everyone to wear my Carapace 3000, I up the physical capacity of the whole humanity… and sell a crapton of units! The muscle-building machine seems to offer very few benefits at the start, and has a requirement of individual commitment to get to desired state. Plus, given how difficult it is to procure such commitment, it’s unlikely to scale as well as the exoskeleton.
Hearing investors express concern over the financial viability of the muscle-building machine seals the deal. I charge ahead with the Carapace 3000. I become rich and famous, and I make a lot of people happy. At least in the beginning. The long-term effects of exoskeleton use begin to surface: people tend to underuse their own muscles, leading to decreased tone and eventual atrophy. Turns out, “barely lifting a finger” was as much of a prophecy as the tagline. As the wave of health-related issues linked to the use of Carapace 3500MAX sweeps across the world, the anti-exo backlash erupts. My company becomes a punching bag, my fame flips into infamy, and fearing for my life, I withdraw to a private island. I hide, occasionally volleying incoherent write-only pronouncements about “ungrateful masses” on Twitter. Trapped in self-loathing, I descend into addiction and one dreary day, find myself dying of overdose on the cold marble floor of my bathroom.
As I draw my last breaths, the waning thoughts percolate. If only I considered the long term effects. If only I didn’t blindly chase the metrics. If only I was more persuasive about the potential of the muscle-building machine. If only I recognized that being helpful and making things more convenient are two entirely different things. If only I recognized that being helpful can only happen in the tension of challenge and support. If only …
… Poof! In a flash of light, I am back where I started. Disoriented and confused, I am gratefully grasping that I am given a second chance. Except this time, the problem is slightly different. I am asked to help people be more capable of making sense of the deluge of the information that is presented to them by the modern world. What path will I take? Will I opt for the withering convenience? Or will I instead consider people becoming more resilient as the aim of my enterprise? How will I define “helpfulness?”