Amazing Tech, How Sweet the Sound… or Is It?

Skeptech

Steve Jobs was famous for using the words, and perhaps in part due to his legacy, it can seem like almost every major new technology these days has to be “amazing” or “magical” in some way. Whether it’s an amazing iPhone case or an amazing laptop that can’t even download any desktop applications, if it ain’t amazing, it ain’t getting covered.

It may seem pretty harmless to call tech gadgets amazing, but it’s actually harmful for a couple of reasons. First off, it tends to be inaccurate. The technology being described in such twitterpated terms is often not that amazing–we’ve had the ability to cover up our iPhones and go on the internet for a while now, after all. What people are typically trying to get at when they call gadgets or applications “amazing” is that the experience of using them is remarkable in some way. This may be because, as with the amazing iPhone case, already-familiar touch-sensitive cells are used on the case itself, transforming your phone from a one-sided to a multi-sided gadget. This innovation in how we interact with our devices–that’s what’s amazing, not the cover itself. So let’s call that out directly.

Second, calling tech amazing is lazy. The word is so overused as to be meaningless, and isn’t a substantive portion of any good technology review. If you’re going to call something amazing, you might as well call it cool or neato or peachy keen. It’s just not a word that gets us anywhere. And because technology is something that’s supposed to advance us, not just amuse us, “amazing” is a really weak word to use for it.

Which brings us to the final thing that’s wrong with calling “tech” amazing: it costs us an opportunity to learn. Focusing on magical descriptions not only sets the bar ridiculously (you might even say amazingly) high for new technologies, it also distorts tech from something that’s meant to help us to something that’s meant to wow us. And something that wows us generally does so because we don’t understand it. Y’know, like religion.

An excessive focus on the “wow” factor of tech brings it very close to religion, in that the purpose of “amazing” tech becomes to transcend something, not understand something. An emphasis on the “amazing” is part of what twists technology from a useful tool into a status symbol or a way to make big money. If you could make an iPhone yourself, you wouldn’t have to pay big bucks to join the Church of Apple; if you could save your own soul, you wouldn’t have to pay a big tithe to the Mormon Church. A sense of mystery is costly: it comes at the price of our ability to learn.

So the next time you’re tempted to call your iPhone “amazing,” ask yourself: why? Am I “amazed” by the speed with which it responds to my touch? The way it can store so much information in such a small space? What is so amazing about it? Then, try to figure out a little bit about how it’s really doing that “amazing” thing. Because, unlike religion, technology has answers. We can learn what’s really happening under that pink plastic cover. Real people put the parts there, not magical elves or angels. Consolidating technical knowledge in the hands of the few–the ordained–is precisely what religion does. Technology should be more egalitarian, allowing almost anyone to use that very technology–in the form of online courses or arduino boards–to understand it better and share it with others.

Fanatical religious language–about amazing grace saving wretches, for example–exists to awe and humble us, to put us “in our place” next to an almighty god we cannot understand. Technology, by contrast, should empower, not prostrate, us; in order to let it do that, we need to delve deeper into understanding just what’s so amazing about it. To not seek the answers that technology offers is to assign technology–and those who wield it–a mysterious authority it doesn’t (they don’t) really have.

Don’t get me wrong–I’m still, yes, pretty amazed that I can hit some squares on top of a rectangle and send a message out to the entire world, or at least those lucky enough to be in a position to receive it. But I don’t want to be complacent and dismiss that as magic. I want to understand more about how it works and why it’s important. Do you?

Kerry is a longtime skeptic and technology enthusiast, currently in recovery from too many years spent working in enterprise software. She still believes in the power of technology to do good, when used judiciously. Find her on Twitter or Google+.

11 Comments

  1. moar tech posts! Also Arduino is fun, but I think Raspberry Pi is worth a mention.

  2. I think you are getting into a slippery slope here. You are right that sometimes people look at technology as their new religion, but you’re singling out a word and attributing your own meaning to the word when different people think of the word differently. People say the words “it’s like magic” or “that’s amazing” all the time, and yet that doesn’t stop the magician from trying to learn the trick that got you there in the first place.

    Should we study this word a little more? I know scientists and tech heads who use “amazing” to describe something all the time, and then immediately begin to dissect that thing to learn more. Amazing in current parlance is more about the “wow factor” than “I can’t figure out how they did that.” Magical does ratchet up the rhetoric a bit and I understand where you are going. Human beings do think in language, but human beings continue to believe less and less in true magic every day, and the word magical takes on a more metaphorical definition every day despite it’s use in technology.

    Magical and Amazing have emotional weight which can also be turned to good. I’m amazed by cosmos and what we have and still have to learn from it, and that amazement is what emotionally drives me to learn more about it. Without that “amazement”, studying the cosmos would be dry and bland and we need to create that drive within ourselves early to study these things, and amazement can be that emotion that helps us do that.

    How many children were held back from learning something because we used the word “amazing” to describe physical world? looking at it from that angle I’m not really sure that your article makes that much sense. I’m more concerned about the religious thinking about how one device is better than another without inspection and critical thinking than the ever evolving definition of 2 words.

  3. Any one remember the Amazing Discoveries series of infomercials with the legendary Mike Levey?
    Everything was amaaaaaazzinggg. It was a good thing me and my friends had a limit on our Amazing drinking game, or else we would all have passed out.
    In The Netherlands the programme was dubbed by people with a very thick fake Yankee brawl. Which of course only added to the fun. It was like watching an episode of Taxi on vegetable slicers.
    Every time I saw mr Jobbs and his sales pitches, I was reminded of Amazing Mike and his Amazing group of Amazing British salesmen.

  4. Thank you for the post. I do have to disagree, since the words “amazing” and “magical” are exactly the words that make me want to know how something works. And usually that new invention or development will wow me, alongside with the product itself. I also have hard time believing that saying that something is amazing will make a naturally curious being (as seems to be accepted of humans in the skeptic circles) uncurious. So by my intuition this tech talk religion analogy looks shoddy and seems to be just flesh on the bones of the actual annoyance: the overuse of the word. But we’ll see how this conversations turns out.

  5. To the extent that “amazing” means “beyond the ken of mortal minds”, I absolutely agree. We should want people to know that none of this is magic, it can all be understood (and used) by anyone, if they are willing to devote the effort to it (and have good teachers and good reference materials, whether books or web sites or user manuals or single-page quick start guides), but more important than understanding it is the meta-understanding that they could figure it out if they had to. Religions usually hold that the experts (the priesthood) is essential. But for technology and science, the experts are a convenience, not a necessity.

    For real magic, I’m holding out for Astounding as the new Amazing. :-)

    PS Skeptech, are you new or have I just not been paying attention? If you are a new blogger, welcome and congratulations!

  6. Maybe we’re using the word “amazing” differently. I always thought it just meant “Pretty damn impressive.” When I say something it amazing, it’s usually because I’m impressed at how cleverly it’s designed. It’s an acknowledgement of the talent behind it, really. When I say something is “like magic” it’s usually because all the complication was obfuscated away through impressive design.

    I dunno, though. I live in a reality distortion field, working in the tech industry as I do. Maybe other people are worshiping their devices and writing them off as magic. But as far as deities go, Apple would have to be my favorite one yet.

  7. Yeah.. just totally “amazed” by all the bloody adroid/iCrap/Chrome/hybred crap on the market, which won’t install anything I actually use on my desktop. Almost as amazed as I was back when I bought a Palm Pilot, with its own “harddrive”, which I later found out:

    1. Wouldn’t even run a game emulator that worked fine, with a bit of pre-memory cleanup, on the older, lower memory, and less storage, device, with crap battery life.

    2. You couldn’t replace this “drive” with a new one, or a bigger one, or a solid state chip, because they had it locked down to a specific “size”, with some mangled OS, and it would flat out reject anything bigger, or not use it properly. And, while there was one single flash card that you could use.. it was literally ***only*** that card, by some third party manufacturer, who, somehow, by some total accident, made one that was compatible. All others, like the Sony SD ones that everyone used in cameras, just wouldn’t work at all.

    Sorry, I went through that crap before. When they can give me a fraking tablet with a real OS on it, or at least one that doesn’t require a Masters in hacking, or computer science, to figure out how to compile a readily available application for, it “might” consider buying one. But, it took me less that 20 minutes of hunting around to figure out that I couldn’t even install Erlang on either iPad or Android tablets, or at least a version I had any certainty would work, never mind get the 3D design application I wanted to use to compile for their GUI, using Erlang, assuming it even worked.

    Sure.. Its semi-obscure, as problems go, but.. its symptomatic of the whole, “If you want to run Chrome, or Firefox, and browse the net, great, but you are SOL if you want to do actual work on the thing.”, mentality that I have seen on every “hand held”/”small” device on the market, clear back to when Palm was still making the damn things the size of a pocket calculator (and with less functionality than the current phones).

    I tend to suspect they wouldn’t like my use of the word “amazing”. It would, unfortunately, not be applied without inserting an additional word, like “crap”, “garbage”, “doorstop”, etc. to the end of the description. lol

  8. Am I the only one who thought of this?

  9. Yea, nothing has been as amazing as that Pong game I got for Christmas back in the 70’s.

    • …and that little HP35 programmable pocket calculator with reverse Polish logic. Only $395! Wow!

  10. I call my iPhone a lot of things, amazing not being one of them. Fucking touch screen.

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