Tech-mal-ogy

So, this being the internet and all, there are frequent discussions about the relentless advancement of technology, and how it betters life for everyone. How newer processes and devices eliminate wasteful and difficult older methods, providing a higher quality of life for everyone. Right? This is how every discussion of new technology goes, right?

Wrong. And specifically wrong as regards consumer technology, which is somehow divided in the human psyche as “stuff that I can buy” versus “stuff that I can’t afford”, instead of the realistic break, “stuff that directly or indirectly affects my life” versus “everything else”. Every advancement in consumer technology runs the same obstacle course as it gets to market, the great steps of progress as defined by our capitalist market: proof of concept, viability, repeatability, marketability. and finally, profitability. But AFTER it hits the market, it runs into the human angle, and as in all things, that is the fiddly bit.

There seems to be four distinctive thoughtforms that looking at a new piece of tech generates.

1. “Why would anyone want that?”

This is an interesting one, because it’s exactly how I feel about Facebook and MySpace, for the most part. I saw them, went “Jesus this is like an uglified version of Geocities/Angelfire with a contact list” and went on my way. Later on I got creative and found a couple people from my past on there, but I really only visit them when I get an email and want to figure out how to turn that email shit off. This is a benign response, it’s just a mild disinterest, doesn’t really rationalize it. The “meh” response.

2. “I want that right now and I will pay any amount to get it.”

This is how I felt about HDTVs. I had absolutely zero need for it, I could not even come up with the barest justification for it: I don’t really watch that much TV! But, I wanted one, the way some people want every new Mac that comes out, or a 30 inch monitor for their computer, or a car with 400 horsepower, or a really exclusive designer purse, or a chick with no gag reflex. This desire avoids logic like the plague, depends on some sort of internal justification logic (No more worries about passing! We would never have to learn the heimlich!), and is usually linked to a hoarding complex.

3. “It’s cool, but that’s not really for me.”

This is a very rare response. This is kind of how I feel about electronic dictionaries or color screen graphing calculators. The last time I needed to calculate the area under anything was a long time ago, and I haven’t used any trigger no mittrey in quite some time. I rarely go “man, I need to know what ebullient means right now”. Others might feel this way about Smartphones or Xboxes – whatever. This is a pretty rational response to most stuff, and therefore isn’t very common in humans, and less so in forum discussion.

4. “NOBODY SHOULD EVER USE THAT THING.”

This is the response that caused me to write this post today. This is a wildly growing response, and it headbutts logic to the ground and yells at it. This is how I felt about… well, uh. Tamagotchi, I guess. Magic The Gathering springs to mind, though the “technology” angle of printed collectible cards is stretching shit pretty thin. In keeping with the irrational nature of this response, I have a hard time remembering or identifying my own failures in this vein.

The thought usually expresses like this:

This thing is a hunk of shit.
This thing is (for babies/for girls/for retards)
It’s just a direct copy of OLDERTHING.
People using this will never learn the skills associated with OLDERTHING.
Therefore it is DAMAGING SOCIETY, because we are LOSING SKILLS.
HERE IS A VAGUELY RELATED ANECDOTE TO PROVE IT.
OLDERTHING is much better because I know it in my gut.

This comes up all the time, here are some examples I have run into, paraphrased, and usually pulled from a couple sources. Also I edited them all to make the viewpoints I don’t agree with seem dumber, because I am a petty little bitch.

Electronic Ignition is a hunk of shit.
It’s like the idiot’s ignition.
It doesn’t do anything that properly set points system doesn’t.
People will never learn how to properly set points gap and dwell.
I had electronic ignition, and it broke, and I had to replace the WHOLE THING, for EIGHTY DOLLARS instead of THREE BUCKS for points.
And I don’t think the car ever ran quite as strong as it did with points.

You can see the thought form. This new technology is somehow substandard, not because of any real facts (other than the price, which is a very real consideration), but because our grandchildren will never think of points and dwell when they think of car ignition. It is damaging things.

My response to this at the time was probably more equitable, but here’s how it really goes. Electronic ignition is the way of the future. It’s smarter than points have ever been. Your car will run more efficiently, and if tuned properly, will stay that way regardless of altitude, weather, age of the system, or skill of the tuner. You retarded luddites can pretend all you like that $3 points are a bargain, but I put a Pertronix ignitor in the van and drove it for SIX YEARS without touching the ignition again, after having replaced/touched/fiddled/caressed/prayed to the points gods every three weeks before that. And the vehicle never ran stronger, ever, than when I had it timed right with the electronic ignition. I hope to god my kids don’t ever have to learn about points, any more than I hope they have to learn about fucking cousins because we have to keep the village going or how much cow shit to mix with the hay to make our bricks.

GPS is a piece of shit.
Is it really so hard to get from Point A to Point B? Morons.
You can get the same thing from maps!
People will never learn to properly orient a map and read street names from it. MAP READING IS IN DANGER.
I used a GPS once and it totally tried to take me on a different route than I normally take. Luckily I knew where I was going.
Plus they’re just a waste of money, you could buy a complete set of road atlases for that much!
And you can’t get topographical information on them!

Again, this follows the thoughform very clearly, again, they do have one fact in there to back them up, that topographical information usually isn’t available (which doesn’t matter so much when you’re driving). This one I had a very clear, concise response to.

If you knew where you were going, why did you have the GPS on? It’s stories like this that always amuse me when people complain about technology. “I WAS USING A PRODUCT I DIDN’T NEED IN A SITUATION THAT WAS ALREADY UNPLEASANT, AND IT DID NOT MAKE THAT SITUATION MAGICALLY BETTER. THEREFORE NOBODY SHOULD USE THEM EVER.” If I busted out a lewdly oscillating rabbit vibrator in the middle of a first date dinner, I couldn’t really complain that it didn’t improve my sex life, could I? How about if I re-un-de-fibrillated myself when I wasn’t having a heart attack, and then complained that there was no way this could possibly be beneficial? I’d look like a nut, right?

And I can’t tell you how often when I’m driving I go “JESUS CHRIST WHO DO I HAVE TO TAILGATE AND FLIP OFF TO GET SOME TOPOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION!”. I’m not saying it replaces maps (see: books versus ebooks round 15), I’m saying it’s better for casual usage when all you want is directions to a specific location.

Also, simple skills that have died off tragically due to advancing technology.
Learning how to use a coal bed warmer.
Learning how to bury your infant sister because she died of smallpox.
Using the center of town near the well to bury your dead.
Using a cut-quill pen.
Learning how to kill the lame so they don’t slow you down when the buffalo come.

I think orienteering is keen and all, but you’re making far too big a deal of it, and fetishizing what, itself, was a huge technological break from traditional tracking skills (With all these fancy picture drawings of where things are, when will little Oglo learn that Magnok is where the sun hits the west hills when it’s winter!).

eBooks are a waste of time.
And you’re just going to end up printing some of it out anyways.
Only people who want to steal copyrighted material like them.
Books have been around for years and they’re just fine!
People will never learn how to find their place, or properly credit books.
I was reading an eBook once and it had SPELLING MISTAKES IN IT!
Plus I just can’t read a lot from a computer screen, because it hurts my eyes.

This is a great one because it doesn’t even have a fact in there, not a one. There’s a vague indication that nobody can read on a computer screen for long, because hey, that’s common knowledge. And that somehow the electronic copy of a book with spelling errors is worse than a printed book with spelling errors. And that I’m vaguely criminal for wanting an electronic copy anyhow.

I do a great deal of leisure reading on my computer, and I almost never print anything that isn’t a diagram/exploded drawing or required to be mailed physically. I do, however, read significantly more novel-length works in traditional book form (probably 70% of my novel-length reading is bedtime books), headed down in volume, I do more novel-length consumption through audiobooks than on screen. That said, I read six times more on the computer screen than I do in books, because I read hundreds and hundreds of news articles, blog posts, short works of fiction, poems, missives, and instant messages per day.

I think there is a certain suspicion, misunderstanding, and fear of electronic media that allows many people to ignore the HUGE amount of text they consume from their computer screen, and somehow categorize that volume as lower than their novel reading, because the text on the screen has no heft. This lack of heft also leads to office-printout-wars. A general superstition about the mutability of data on the computer, and poor ergonomic understanding of the computer fill out the trifecta of conspicuous consumption. The office I’m in is a perfect example. Every ticket that comes in is printed. Emails are printed out to be handed out at meetings, PowerPoint presentations are printed out for general perusal. The event calendar is a spreadsheet, and the admin for our group “helpfully” prints it once per quarter to give to all of us.

I do, however, balk at blaming computerized documents for this behavior. If electronic documents weren’t there at all, would all offices need less paper? Would they simply not need this information? Would just one copy in a filing cabinet be enough? Would we mail it around if other offices needed it? Doubtful. We’d simply have a huge electronic filing system instead of a server floor. Rows and rows of racks, and instead of a pair of shoes and tea in my filing drawer, I’d have seventy pounds of cage liner (plus my job would probably suck even more than it does now).

Sadly, all arguments against multiformat distribution are crap. Paper books are a delivery mechanism, nothing more, a good one, a surpassingly effective one (in terms of longevity, portability, repeatability), but it’s no more righteous than any other way of reading, regardless of how much wine you are slogging down while Robert Frost’s upraised print gently buffs your nipples.

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