iWonder: Technology vs. wonderment

June 19, 2012

Our relationship to technology is an interesting one. To say that it is love/hate is an oversimplification. I think it’s more of a love/co-dependence/hate/addiction/take-it-for-granted/why-won’t-you-just-@!?*&#-work kind of a thing. Y’know, kind of like your favorite sports team.

What a piece of work is iPad, how sleek in form, how generous in resolution. In speed, how like a velociraptor. In simplicity how like a wooden spoon! Except nobody gets Hamlet-sized pangs of delight or yearning when thinking about the technology and design of wooden spoons. Well, somebody does, just not anybody I know. Sporks are totally different: fascinating things – especially the titanium ones. Anyway, a similar low regard is given to microwave ovens. They once held a prominent place in the pantheon of important technological developments, yet now they are casually summoned to perform such pedestrian tasks as re-heating that stuff I found in the fridge that wasn’t even that good to begin with. How long ‘til we feel the same way about the iPad?

We have an Edison phonograph player at home. Occasionally we crank it up (literally) and play some John Philip Sousa, standing before it in reverent silence, marveling at the fact that it’s possible to get music from irregular grooves on a slowly turning, defective Frisbee. Meanwhile, the DVD player in the living room is pouting and sniffling because we never take any note of it at all. Poor little DVD player; let me wipe off your tiny digital tears…

​What a piece of work is iPad, how sleek in form, how generous in resolution. In speed, how like a velociraptor. In simplicity, how like a wooden spoon!

And so it seems part of the human condition is to seek novelty and consume new technologies. After we acquire them, their benefits become familiar, but more importantly as time goes on, we linger on their shortcomings. Our general lack of understanding about how they work accelerates our disappointment. Paradoxically in the case of the phonograph player above, a simpler device inspires awe in an unexpected way: We collectively believe (at least a little) that it isn’t possible to play music without elaborate electronic equipment and that a crude mechanism – completely visible to the naked eye! – is manifestly unsuited to the task.

I’m not scolding, but I never, ever want to hear you complain again about your GPS/MP3/internet/video/app smartphone just because it doesn’t understand you when you mumble! (Sorry, that slipped out.) My point is that we simply run certain risks if we take technology for granted or mistake it for magic with unlimited power.

  • We invite both misfortune and embarrassment when we don’t understand how technology works: No, you really cannot open your locked car with your cell phone by having your wife hold the car remote next to her phone and push the “unlock door” button.
  • If we always presuppose hi-tech solutions, we might miss the chance to solve problems in creative ways with “low-tech” devices – something that could benefit cost, schedule, the environment and even effectiveness. Yes, you can level two points on opposite walls of a room by using a GPS or a laser level. You know what else works? About 20 feet of clear plastic tubing mostly filled with water. (Thanks, Archimedes!) 
  • Finally, if we don’t stop to consider our tools once in a while, we might miss out on a decidedly human experience: a sense of wonder and appreciation for some truly amazing things. (Seriously: sporks)