Our world revolves around creating dividing lines. It helps us make order out of chaos. We divide up continents into nations, nations into states, states into cities. We split up groups of humans to create demographics and target markets. We divide our lives by years, months, days … down to moments.

There’s a place for dividing lines in the tech world, as well – what is socially acceptable or not, and how that evolves over time. Sometimes it evolves slowly, sometimes rapidly. That evolution helps us create a dividing line to let us determine if technology is acceptable – meeting our desires – or being intrusive.

Innovators cross lines as they develop new products and services. Push new technology too far and it alienates users to fall out of their comfort zone. Play it too safely, no one might notice or care.

So when is something intrusive, when is it acceptable and when does it rest in the middle? These dividing lines are created by use cases. Is it meeting a need?

Case in point, just two decades ago, heads would turn if someone were to walk down the sidewalk talking on a phone. That was not commonplace – yet. A decade ago, signs were posted everywhere about cell phone conversations not being allowed in waiting rooms or restaurants. That seems like ancient history now that mobile devices are everywhere we live and work.

We’re going through a similar situation with drone technology. Use a drone to shoot a video over a spectacular waterfall and it goes viral on social media. However, use a drone to get a closer look at a wildfire and cause firefighting planes to be grounded. Currently the Federal Aviation Administration is developing rules about flying drones in national airspace. Same technology, different interpretation because the dividing line hasn’t been drawn as to what is socially acceptable, and in this case – safe. It’s still evolving.

In digital media, the Apple Watch is revolutionizing our interaction with technology. But the potential for the product has little to do with telling time. Just as a phone has less to do with talking now and more to do with reading. The design and technology eventually drove how phone’s evolution – as did the use. The same will be for the watch. Its true potential hasn’t been reached yet as developers are determining its actual use from consumer behavior.

This leads us to the next question – when technology is developed without a clear use case, how do we know when it has crossed the dividing line of what is acceptable? As we develop technology that can make better decisions than humans can, when do we know that the dividing line between acceptable and unacceptable has been crossed, or vice versa?

Traditionally, innovation stemmed from an idea of use. Develop the best solution to a dilemma and the problem is solved. There was a problem, now there is the perfect solution to fix it. 

However, now we’re creating technology and then trying to determine the meaningful use for it.

As technology is developed faster than we can find a use for it, the determination if it’s useful or not, has a blurred diving line – at best. How can we know if it’s acceptable if we don’t even have a use for it yet?

The challenge is to determine how technology contributes to our growth. As more innovative technology – without a use case – is developed, we will need to grow more comfortable with ambiguity.

Develop it. See how to use it. Determine what is acceptable and what is not.

Technology won’t be the answer to a problem, it will be a potential for us to determine its best use. One that still fits in within our ideals of what is acceptable.

Technology will be the question, instead of the answer.  

Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU. © BYU Photo 2014