Tool Up for Tomorrow

Opinion: Choosing tools and technologies needs to be done with the long term in mind, for apes, home users and the enterprise alike.

Planning skills are one of the final pillars of Homo sapiens claim to be something more than a naked ape. Watching behaviors regarding tool choice, and thinking about their implications for the planning thats taking place (or not), is a field of study that I commend to IT builders and administrators as well as to researchers.

Plain old complex reasoning isnt all that special anymore—were almost into the second decade since IBMs Deep Blue machine won a regulation chess match against reigning world champion Garry Kasparov in 1997.

Even the ability to recognize (or make) and use tools is no longer considered a hallmark of uniquely human intelligence—not only other primates, but many species of birds use physical objects in ways that enhance native abilities.

But foresight—the inclination to envision possibility and take action to be ready for it, even at the expense of a near-term cost—is a defining human trait, isnt it? Well, maybe not.

/zimages/5/28571.gifGuru Jakob Nielsen offers advice on designing applications for usability. Click here to watch the video.

Writing in the May 19 issue of Science, Nicholas Mulcahy and Josep Call at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, in Leipzig, Germany, reported that two different species of apes showed the ability to select an appropriate tool 14 hours before the occasion that it would be needed—and to transport that tool to another location, thereby preventing its removal by someone else before the time that they would need it themselves.

"Thats pretty smart," I found myself thinking as I read this, and then wondered: Do people consistently demonstrate the same kind of intelligence? Unfortunately, I can think of a good many counterexamples.

Its a cliché, for example, to observe that people dont think about repairing a leaky roof at times when it isnt raining. A roof is not a tool in the same sense as a hammer or a screwdriver, but its still a kind of artifact that makes our environment behave differently—so as to make us safer and more comfortable.

Fixing the roof when its convenient to do so, instead of needing the reminder of a dripping sound in the middle of the night, seems like a behavior that would demonstrate a pretty basic kind of intelligence—and yet its common to joke that no one does it.

Putting this in a more typical context for this column, were now in the throes of one of the big retail seasons for PCs—the Dad and Grad period, as gadget outlets call it. We have a downright anthropological opportunity to look at the tool selection behaviors of supposedly higher primates—the kind who use credit cards and Web browsers. Observe their process of choosing between one piece of computing equipment and another, and youll see that running the games that they like to play appears to be one of their main criteria.

/zimages/5/28571.gifClick here to about why Peter Coffee suggests making it clear that security is a priority.

My earlier subject of leaking roofs brings to mind the question of whether Dad and Grad PC buyers are making thoughtful tool selections based on the likelihood—nay, the inevitability—of hard disk failure or other data loss, whether due to wear and tear or to various forms of human error or malice. Will buyers look at one PC versus another and note, for example, that one has a built-in flash-memory card socket, encouraging the user to maintain a conveniently fast and easily removable backup copy of what may well be irreplaceable data? Graduation photos, for example?

Or will those buyers spend their money on larger and brighter displays, perhaps envisioning themselves enjoying those pictures or home videos that theyre not prepared to invest in protecting? People, please: Quit monkeying around. Stop saving money today in ways that will bite you tomorrow—when its too late to make a better plan.

This admonition readily scales up to enterprise-level concerns. Technologies need to be chosen in the expectation that theyll have to accommodate growth and that theyll have to provide at least partial function under non-ideal conditions. Systems will fail: Be prepared to contain the damage. Security attacks will succeed: Be prepared to determine what happened and who did it, and to prove it.

Choose tools that will solve the problems youre going to have, as well as the ones you have right now. Dont merely ape the act of IT planning.

Peter Coffee can be reached at

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