Tech ‘solutions’ aren’t all they’re cracked up to be

15 Jul 2019

Image: © Maren Winter/

You can use tech to solve a problem but tech alone can’t paper over cracks in infrastructure, writes Elaine Burke.

Another political debate in the UK and another occasion for politicians to display their deep misunderstanding of a whole chunk of the United Kingdom.

In ITV’s search for the UK’s Next Top Super Tory last Tuesday (9 July), moderator Julie Etchingham wanted specific and detailed answers from Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt on the tough Brexit questions, such as the Irish border. Hunt said, somewhere amid all the crosstalk, he had a 202-page report on practical solutions to the as yet unanswered matter of the Irish border. His plan is propped up by three pillars, one of which is, of course, technology.

I would love to know what technology Hunt believes can create an international trade barrier along this complex 500km border. Is he going to develop a customs agent skill for Alexa to keep tabs on homes where occupants wake up in Northern Ireland and have breakfast in the Republic? Stick an RFID tag under the skin of the people who have to cross the border multiple times along one stretch of road?

The myth of the magical technological solution has been with us for a long time and it perpetuates in the language of tech businesses. Companies no longer provide products and services in exchange for money (or data). No, they enrich, empower and enable. What they are selling are ‘solutions’.

In the case of the Irish border, it’s not unreasonable to expect the tech world to be able to work out the unworkable. I mean, this very week marks 50 years since the success of the original moonshot technology mission. After all, this is the industry built on turning mathematics and engineering into seamless and friction-free experiences for end users. Right?

Well, the reality, like the Irish border, is a bit more complicated than a simple definition.

You don’t have an app that hails you a taxi, you have an app that tells you, after some delay, that there are no taxis available. An RTPI system synced to the bus network can tell you when the next bus is going to drive past full. Trying to keep it eco-friendly, you can rent an electric scooter from a ride-sharing platform and charge it up by plugging into the fossil-fuel-guzzling grid. And that’s just the transport inadequacies covered.

You can also track the biological signals from every moment of your quantified life, then join the lengthening waitlist to see an actual doctor if a red flag is raised. You have a world of information at your fingertips for a school project, as long as you can be brought to the supermarket car park for internet access.

Technology can’t paper over the cracks of broken infrastructure. It is not a solution, it’s a tool.

It’s enough that the business world wants to use solutions-based language to sell the idea of technology as the skeleton key to open up all opportunities, but when politicians start spouting this nonsense, it serves as little more than a distraction.

‘Look over here at this shiny new tool! It’s internet-connected and fully sensored! It fixes things! Oh that? Never mind that. That’s just the brickwork yet to be laid.’

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Elaine Burke is the editor of Silicon Republic