The Joys of Technology: Burying Ourselves in Capabilities

Now that the 2006 Christmas buying orgy is over, and the landfills are swelling with discarded trees, wrappings, and the now outdated gifts of previous Christmas seasons, Americans everywhere are busy reading the manuals for their increasingly complicated new electronic devices and appliances, wondering where on earth they're going to put them, and worrying about all the accessories they're going to have to buy to clean, hold, carry, protect, insure, maintain, secure, and repair them.

I can't help being bothered by the fact that the 'health' of our economy depends on all of us continually distracting ourselves with new gadgets that will complicate our lives, waste our time, and provide constant new occasions for irritation. With each new invention we're told that it will enable us in some way. "With this widget you will be able to mordorize twenty thousand phrenostats in x seconds." It never seems to occur to the average American to ask, either himself or the producer, "Do I want to mordorize twenty thousand phrenostats in x seconds? Do I want to mordorize even one? Is this the way I want to spend my time?"

We're burying ourselves in capabilities. I see people all around me slaving away for the
privilege of burying themselves in future landfill. There are an amazing number of things
they're now able to do, only they don't have time to do them. And before they've scarcely had
a chance to test one of these capabilities out, it's 'obsolete'--meaning there's a new model
that will mordorize forty thousand and also play DVDs and program your microwave.

We're a 'can-do' society. Technology encourages us to spend our time doing things we
never would have thought of doing before, and were perfectly happy not doing. Most of them do
nothing to improve our lives but simply distract us from more enjoyable activities that
would improve our lives. Every new electronic gadget has an array of bells and whistles
requiring a manual to use--bells and whistles that largely duplicate each other from gadget
to gadget. Ninety percent of the capabilities of every piece of electronic equipment I own go
unused. I don't see the point of them. I know I 'can', but why would I want to?

A 1999 article, looking back on predictions futurists made in the 1950s, wondered what had happened to all the "dazzling modern amenities" we were supposed to be enjoying already: robot maids, space colonies, automated highways, and so on. The reason for the flawed crystal ball is simple. Most futurists are only interested in technology--humans are seen as passive bystanders, buffeted by the winds of technological change and whisked into new worlds like Dorothy and Toto. But every benefit technology brings has an evil twin skulking along behind it--a social problem it creates. The automobile destroyed community, television made people passive, apathetic, and obese, and so on.

Every invention creates new needs, but the biggest needs are not for new and more advanced versions of the last invention but for solutions to the social problems the last invention created.
Instead of predicting more "dazzling modern amenities" the futurists of the 1950s might have predicted the flourishing of organic foods, fitness spas, health food stores, coffee houses, dating services, improv groups, reading clubs, karaoke bars, camping equipment, and so on. Our needs to be healthy, to avoid contamination, to hang out together in public spaces, to be in relationships, and to enjoy nature, are stronger than our need for a new gadget. Yet some of the more gaga futurists still talk about everyone in the future communicating entirely on-line.

The greatest challenge in the 21st century will be to design ways and venues for enriching personal relationships and reconnecting us with the rest of nature, and the important inventions of the future will not be gadgets, but new and better ways for people to connect in person with one another and free themselves from suffocation in man-made environments.