Technology 2.0

Technological improvement, especially in software and consumer electronic devices, still reminds me of a hamster on a wheel mesmerized by motion.hamster130  I happen to have been an early adopter of quote-technology-unquote.  In 1981 I had two home computers (but no washer and dryer).  I lived in Columbus and was already a “distance learner” at Ohio State, i.e, I did my programming homework online from home. (Of course, as the late Neal Postman pointed out, books were the first distance learning technology in widespread use.)

I submitted my master’s thesis on pin-fed, microfine perforated paper, printed on my $500 Epson 9-pin bi-directional dot-matrix printer attached to my Atari 800 computer.  In those days I also banked electronically with Huntington Bank via CompuServe.

In the mid-1990’s, my having to support users on desktop systems showed me what trade magazines had begun to hint at–but never quite admit.  Added product functionality typically produces diminishing returns.  The early versions of WordPerfect and Word (pre-Windows) were just fine.  They incorporated all the bright ideas their predecessors, like Wang systems, had devised.  New enhancements were usually esoteric and cumbersome to learn, hogged computer memory, as we used to say, and degraded the overall user experience. (Does this remind anyone of Microsoft VISTA?)

Rather than focus on the technology itself, I am inclined to look at the psychological or, better, economic dynamics involved. Technology use definitely involves user expectations, perceived value, and return on investment (effort).  What leads us to perceive a tool that is perfectly satisfactory for a task as suddenly unsatisfactory?  Sure I like my wireless keyboard and mouse–less clutter.  But I was delighted with my Atari 800 with its RS-232 attachments and cables strung everywhere.  Those were simply costs of having a magical tool at my finger tips. They were part of the mystique because they demonstrated (symbolized, really) its sophistication.

So, wanting new features and added functionality comes, in part, from a jaded attitude.  I remember talking to an engineer about, of all things, Fig Newtons packaging.  fignewtons140Must have been during a technology training class (I forget) and I had a package of the cookies with me for snacks. He said “I am most amazed that they are manufactured and distributed so efficiently that you now have them in your hands.”   His observation came from a purely technical angle, not from some Hallmark-isn’t-the-rosy-world-wonderful view. He knew how complicated the task really was–and I did not.

The more we are oblivious to the intricacies of our everyday tools–their wires, switches, programming logic and algorithms, etc.–the more stupid and stupified we really are.

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