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