10 Aug 2013
Atul Gawande writes about spreading better childbirth practices in India, and tries to understand why some ideas spread faster than others by comparing the successful spread of anesthesia to the much slower progress of antiseptics:
This has been the pattern of many important but stalled ideas. They attack problems that are big but, to most people, invisible; and making them work can be tedious, if not outright painful. The global destruction wrought by a warming climate, the health damage from our over-sugared modern diet, the economic and social disaster of our trillion dollars in unpaid student debt—these things worsen imperceptibly every day. Meanwhile, the carbolic-acid remedies to them, all requiring individual sacrifice of one kind or another, struggle to get anywhere.
A similar explanation could be used to explain the difficulties in getting people to backup their computer, or wear seat belts.
In the era of the iPhone, Facebook, and Twitter, we want frictionless, “turnkey” solutions to the major difficulties of the world. We prefer instructional videos to teachers, drones to troops, incentives to institutions. But technology and incentive programs are not enough. Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process. Human interaction is the key force in overcoming resistance and speeding change.
The important subtext here also is that it is not enough to hold people responsible for their ignorance to seemingly obvious remedies to big problems. When problems are invisible – such as the spread of infection from surgery after the patient goes home, the possibility of hard drive failure, or the damage an accident can cause to a driver not wearing a seat belt – people can tend to ignore the common remedy. This stresses the incredible importance of making these solutions more convenient. Easier backup/syncing technologies are valuable because they get people who would otherwise have been inertial to save their data to do so because it now requires less effort. Of course with many other fields, making solutions more convenient is not just a matter of an interface change but more a culture change – which is much slower and much more difficult but perhaps much more powerful.