In general, when technology attempts to solve problems of matter, energy, space, or time, it is successful. When it attempts to solve human problems of the mind, communication, ability, etc. it fails or backfires dangerously.
For example, the Internet handled a great problem of space—it allowed us to communicate with anybody in the world, instantly. However, it did not make us better communicators. In fact, it took many poor communicators and gave them a massive platform on which they could spread hatred and fear. This isn’t me saying that the Internet is all bad—I’m actually quite fond of it, personally. I’m just giving an example to demonstrate what types of problems technology does and does not solve successfully.
The reason this principle is useful is that it tells us in advance what kind of software purposes or startup ideas are more likely to be successful. Companies that focus on solving human problems with technology are likely to fail. Companies that focus on resolving problems that can be expressed in terms of material things at least have the possibility of success.
There can be some seeming counter-examples to this rule. For example, isn’t the purpose of Facebook to connect people? That sounds like a human problem, and Facebook is very successful. But connecting people is not actually what Facebook does. It provides a medium through which people can communicate, but it doesn’t actually create or cause human connection. In fact, most people I know seem to have a sort of uncomfortable feeling of addiction surrounding Facebook—the sense that they are spending more time there than is valuable for them as people. So I’d say that it’s exacerbating certain human problems (like a craving for connection) wherever it focuses on solving those problems. But it’s achieving other purposes (removing space and time from broad communication) excellently. Once again, this isn’t an attack on Facebook, which I think is a well-intentioned company; it’s an attempt to make an objective analysis of what aspects of its purpose are successful using the principle that technology only solves physical problems.
This principle is also useful in clarifying whether or not the advance of technology is “good.” I’ve had mixed feelings at times about the advance of technology—was it really giving us a better world, or was it making us all slaves to machines? The answer is that technology is neither inherently good nor bad, but it does tend towards evil when it attempts to solve human problems, and it does tend toward good when it focuses on solving problems of the material universe. Ultimately, our current civilization could not exist without technology, which includes things like public sanitation systems, central heating, running water, electrical grids, and the very computer that I am writing this essay on. Technology is in fact a vital force that is necessary to our existence, but we should remember that it is not the answer to everything—it’s not going to make us better people, but it can make us live in a better world.