Essays on Technology and Culture

To Understand Technology

What does it mean to understand technology? More importantly, how much understanding of technology do we need in our lives? Knowing the fundamentals of how electrons move, and how transistors and logic gates operate is useful, but does little to help us understand how to manage the myriad new ways technology has integrated itself into our lives. Just as you need not understand the chemical reactions occurring in the combustion chamber of your car’s engine to drive to work in the morning, the actual physics behind technology isn’t necessary in our lives.

The best way to learn how to use a car is to develop control of it. Get behind the wheel, turn the ignition, figure out what the switches, pedals, dials, and gauges do, and drive it around for a while in a controlled environment. Except in the most extreme circumstances, a car won’t do anything it’s not told to do. It’s the same with a computer, a smartphone, or a hammer. That’s not to say these are as intuitive as a hammer. Many of us can intuit that the heavy part of the hammer is supposed to make contact with some other thing. Not so much when a tool’s interface consists of multiple parts that must be operated in a specific sequence—or, worse, is completely open-ended.

Consider the earliest computer interfaces that average people might have to deal with: a cryptic line of text, and a blinking cursor (if that). Unless you know the commands, the computer will respond in a very non-cryptic fashion: “Bad command or file name.” The chances you’ll type a particularly dangerous command are very slim. Still, the requirement of pre-existing knowledge to use the computer’s interface—be it from a manual, or teaching—presents a huge obstacle. It’s intimidating to face down a command line with no knowledge, even if you “know” you’re unlikely to break the darn thing. This fear prevents that sort of controlled experimentation that lets us understand other tools and technologies. Even worse, as the familiar tools in our lives become computers in their own right, the learning curve and fear becomes all the more common.

But knowing how to use a thing, and understanding a thing are not the same. To return to the car, we understand that a car is a device that allows us to move ourselves, other people, and physical things from one point to another, at a decent speed. A computer is not so easily simplified in terms of what we can do with it, because increasingly the computer, and computerized devices, can do almost anything we desire. Once again, Douglas Adams beat me to the punch, summarizing the entire problem thusly: “First we thought the PC was a calculator. Then we found out how to turn numbers into letters with ASCII — and we thought it was a typewriter. Then we discovered graphics, and we thought it was a television. With the World Wide Web, we’ve realized it’s a brochure.”

Shortcuts like this allow for us to think we have a grip on what these tools are, but the truth is much more nuanced. A computer, a smartphone, the Internet—these tools are whatever we want them to be, and to understand them, we need to not only know this, but we need to know how to make them what we want them to be. This should be the fundamental mission of any company that exists in this space: not to simply sell a product that people can use for a small number of purposes, but to sell a product that emboldens someone to do anything they can imagine. There’s precious few companies out there do this. All we can hope for, at best, is for a company to hand us the product with no preconceptions on how we’ll use it, but also no inspiration for us to use it as anything more than a calculator, typewriter, television, or brochure. At worst, we have companies that hand us the product with the promise it can be one thing—a telephone, perhaps—but does it poorly.

The reason so few companies give us technology products that inspire us to do more with them, is that it’s more lucrative for them to limit our choices. Handing us an expensive handheld computer that locks us into a predefined experience created by a marketing person to reduce what we use the product for, sell partner content, and collect our personal information to resell does not benefit us at all. Until one of the few companies who does inspire us to do more with our technologies entered the cellphone space, this is what we had to put up with—and many of us still do. We allow this to happen, because the majority of us don’t understand the potential of what they hold in their hands every day, and until they do, the balance of power will forever tip against us.