Philosophers debate the degree to which our lives are governed by the so-called “technological imperative,” as described by Daniel Chandler:
The doctrine of the technological imperative is that because a particular technology means that we can do something (it is technically possible) then this action either ought to (as a moral imperative), must (as an operational requirement) or inevitably will (in time) be taken.
One doesn’t have to believe in the inevitability of the technological imperative to recognize that it is nearly always true. Japan’s rejection of western firearms for several centuries is often cited as one of the few exceptions, but even it couldn’t last.
In the 18th century, Thomas Earnshaw and James Hargreaves simultaneously invented machines to reduce the labor involved in producing yarn. Earnshaw destroyed his machine, fearing it would leave many poor people without incomes, but the gesture was futile: Hargreaves’ spinning jenny did exactly that, so Earnshaw’s scruples meant only that Hargreaves grew rich instead of him.
Business technology abounds with examples of the technological imperative. The advent of the photocopier vastly widened the circulation of business documents. Data processing led to much more data being retained and used. Modern networking technology inevitably gave us always-on jobs that can never be left at the office. And the ability to send large numbers of email for free gave us spam, despite all our efforts to stop it.
Today, we are in a transitional stage regarding archiving technology. In the era of analog telephony, it was infeasible to consider archiving every phone call. But once digital telephony became the norm, it was only a few years before governments began mandating the archiving of calls in certain industries. The combination of advances in archiving and deep analytical tools has inevitably led to ever more archiving by businesses, both voluntarily and by governmental mandate. At the moment we’re in a transitional phase where, for example, financial companies often have to archive email, but not instant messages. This has caused sensitive communication to skew towards the latter, but who can doubt that governments will figure this out and extend the mandate to IM?
The more we archive, the more value we can get from our archives. Knowledge that has long been buried and inaccessible can be made available across an organization. As storage and bandwidth continue to grow, it will be hard to resist archiving audio or video of meetings, surveillance camera footage, and much more. Those who put their heads in the sand will merely find that they’re falling behind their competitors, and that they’ve failed to anticipate and prepare for the requirements and opportunities that come with the “big data” they will inevitably accumulate.
Whether you’re in an industry that will welcome this development or resist as long as possible, there’s a powerful technological dynamic driving all of us towards greater archiving and data retention, and it will likely be reinforced by government regulations and mandated retention periods. We can lament the implications for privacy, or for the autonomy of management teams, but it’s more constructive to ask how we can exploit these archives for competitive advantage.
Along with the obvious problems, more comprehensive archives bring with them the potential to revolutionize our understanding of our own information. Smart business analytics tools will be able to use these archives to give us earlier warnings about problems and opportunities, and to deepen our understanding of what’s going on in our own organizations. More comprehensive archives are coming whether we want them or not, so we might as well figure out how to make use of them.