Here's a story about two industries--two almost entirely different situations--with something in common. When you trust technology to be the big problem solver, you've made a bad mistake.

The two industries were social media and healthcare. MySpace--once considered a significant company--lost every bit of music that people had uploaded onto the system more than three or four years ago. Here's the explanation that someone had posted:

As a result of a server migration project, any photos, videos, and audio files you uploaded more than three years ago may no longer be available on or from Myspace. We apologize for the inconvenience and suggest that you retain your back up copies.

Oopsies. All that data was just gone from a system designed, presumably, so people could safely upload, store, and use data.

MySpace is hardly the first company to form around a technology, only to find that grand designs of smart people can turn into outsized disasters. Amazon had a massive web services crash in 2008, taking down a number of startups that depended on the technology. Plus there was the whopper of a belly flop of some of its cloud services in 2011. And the one in 2017.

There's the entire electronic health records fiasco that has soaked up tens of billions of dollars and promised a brave new world of better, more efficient, and less expensive care. Maybe the software has saved lives, but it also has cost them, or come to near misses.

Too often, we as a country, world, and sets of industries have bought into the beguiling charm of technology--too often a conniving lover that will break your heart the moment you dream of a happy future. Software and hardware, or systems largely defined by their computerized foundations, are too often presented as the solution to problems when they should be treated as tools, as you would with a hammer or saw.

At issue, as statistical quality control theorists have long determined, are systemic issues in processes. We create organizations and methods that are flawed and create trouble down the line. Then we substitute computers and software--created by fallible human beings and dependent on organizations and methods that are invariably flawed somewhere.

I'm not suggesting the elimination of technology. Far from it, as I benefit greatly from its use. But in business, you can't depend on a digital white knight to come in and sweep away every headache and obstacle. Such a system might improve some things while causing other dilemmas.

Use technology but remember how it can turn into a snake that strikes. Off-site backup? Absolutely, so long as you have records elsewhere as well. Use hosted software, remembering that an Internet outage could, depending on its design, leave you dead in the water. Don't leave someone else with total control of your data while you forgo a copy. If there are potential troubles in your business, you are the one with the responsibility to fix them. Don't abdicate the role and expect that nothing could go wrong.

Published on: Mar 20, 2019
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.