The “double-edged sword” is a phrase from 15th century English that began as an idiom for someone using an argument that could both help and hurt their position. As with any idiom, there is debate about how the phrase came to be used in this way, but most likely it referred to a weapon that, while deadly to your enemy, was just as deadly to a swordsman using it incorrectly. The idiom has evolved to mean something that “cuts both ways,” or simply, something that has, or can have, both positive and negative consequences.
For example, layoffs can be a double-edged sword. The company saves money by removing high salaries from its payroll, but those high salaries are usually those of the employees who have been around the longest, so, in turn, the company also loses its most-experienced, knowledgeable employees.
Medicine can be one as well, offering a treatment, or even a cure, for a disease or condition, but can have significant side effects. Even technology can be a double-edged sword.
Consider this statement: “Technology makes our lives better.”
Ever had your computer crash in the middle of preparing an important e-mail or document? Those who have, in that moment, might long for the days of the typewriter, stamps, and an envelope. Ever gotten to work in the morning to find your Outlook overrun with e-mails and the thought that you might never catch up, find, and respond to the important stuff? If you have, you might think back on the time when snail mail offered a sense of anticipation for correspondence with friends, family and colleagues, rather than knowing every move they make throughout the day by following them on Facebook.
If “better” means “safer,” contemplate this: An October 2014 Vanity Fairarticle, “The Human Factor,” analyzed the 2009 crash of Air France Flight 447. Through expert analysis and cockpit recordings, author William Langewiesche documented a major factor behind the crash—the crew’s lack of experience and knowledge, in part, due to increased automation in the evolution of the airplane and, “the unintended consequence of designing airplanes that anyone can fly.”
Langewiesche wrote, “It seems that we are locked into a spiral in which poor human performance begets automation, which worsens human performance, which begets increasing automation. The pattern is common to our time but is acute in aviation.”
One of the key factors to combating the idea of technology as a double-edged sword has always been not to dismiss or revert from it, but to improve it. In fact, many of the potential solutions to the Air France tragedy offered by industry experts have been to add sensors and increase automation and technology.
The same can be said of the quality industry, which has, and continues to, forge a path that combines human knowledge and experience with automation. See how throughout the pages of this month’s Quality.
As always, enjoy and thanks for reading!