The alternate headline to this post could have been “Why does technology consistently underwhelm us?” Don’t get me wrong. I give full credit to our species. In relative terms, it was only yesterday that we were hunting and gathering on the African Savanna – as we had been for 99% of our time as a species. Homo Erectus had “fire technology” as early as a million years ago. Fire was the height of their technology – followed by the flint tools they created and the natural cures for their ailments that they found in nature. Fire as technology changed what and how these proto-humans ate; cooked animal protein digests more easily in the human gut than raw animal protein. Between the Middle and Upper Paleolithic periods ( 80,000 – 70,000 years ago), some hunter-gatherer tribes began to specialize in hunting bigger and bigger game – because more animal protein. That forced them to invent new tools – new technology – in order to accomplish their mission. Here’s the irony: in time, the drive toward technology created agriculture which demanded less wandering and more staying put. Our hunter-gatherer’s diet – wide, varied, ever-changing – became the more fixed, consistent, but vulnerable to local conditions diet of the city-dweller. Hunter-gatherers have less famine than agriculturalists (us).
So, either our technology or our use of it has led us astray. For all our advancements, as a species, humans are hungrier now than we were a million years ago.
Bells, meet Whistles.
I’ll admit. I’m old. If I were living a million years ago, I wouldn’t be. Living, that is. I’m 63 and in all likelihood, I wouldn’t have survived this long. Score one for technology. I wouldn’t be tapping out this blog either. Score another for tech. There’s a lot even old people take for granted about technology. I just visited my mom on the East Coast; she lives in a large senior community. The bottom line is independent living there but, as one approaches the bottom line – where age makes independent living increasingly difficult – technology becomes the lifeline to staying independent for as long as possible.
My mom, for instance, has become less mobile for myriad reasons. But, the capacity to transfer from bed to hi-tech wheelchair and from hi-tech wheelchair to commode are what define “independence” in her situation. Can’t transfer? Can’t live independently. My mom is now reliant on the hi-tech wheelchair’s ability to raise and lower in order for her to stay in her apartment in this community. At the very same time, this incredibly competent woman who used to use her computer regularly, won’t even turn it on anymore – because the technology inside it terrifies her.
It’s perverse. Because of a series of mini-strokes, my mom has a hard time communicating. She can formulate thoughts but, most of the time, they can’t seem to get from inside her head to her tongue – and then out to us. Occasionally, her thoughts DO get out. For a couple of minutes, she’s entirely present. Then she seems to fade a little into the background of her own mind – as if communicating any more was too exhausting. Sitting and staring at the TV is just easier and preferable. The double-edged sword of technology.
Could my mom use technology either to facilitate getting those thoughts from her to us or to transmit them entirely? Well, the latter’s kind of sci-fi. It’s more “in the works” tech than “here and now” tech. My mom still has a degree of manual dexterity. She can still read. Surely, if she were to turn on her computer and put the keyboard on her lap, a few of those thoughts trapped inside her could escape.
If only turning on the computer didn’t intimidate the hell out of her.
To be honest, I know how she feels – about being intimidated by technology. I consider publishing this blog an accomplishment. Not the content, the fact of doing it – of being able to “handle” the technology. Ironically, I’m not supposed to feel that way about the technology; a huge part of technology’s sales pitch is that technology makes everything easier. And, while, on the one hand, it does – my mom’s wheelchair – it isn’t/doesn’t/can’t in the case of my mom’s computer.
I think I know what the problem is (hell, I’m writing this post, aren’t I?) I really, really like all the folks at WordPress where I publish this and all my other blots and podcasts. And I really do believe they want to make the experience of publishing blogs and podcasts and generating e-commerce as easy and democratic as it can possibly be. And, yet, as immersed as I am in the technology, I never feel like I’m taking full advantage of the technology.
I see – in the marketplace – people doing the things with their blogs that I aspire to. I’m not referring to their content; I’m referring to their use of the available technology. They are taking far fuller advantage of the tech than I am. They know something I don’t. And I don’t know HOW they know it. And that – I think – is technology’s problem.
Consider how much technology is available to my mom that she won’t use because she doesn’t know how to. The same can be said for me. This isn’t a technology problem, it turns out, it’s a communication problem!
Look, I’ll admit it: I’m a difficult personality. I ask way too many questions. I’ve never been one to take anything at face value. I’m not going to be satisfied with knowing just that a thing works, I need to know how it works. Why it works the way it does. If I grasp the process, I can intuit most everything else I need to know.
I’ll illustrate it this way: neither of my two twenty-something kids – incredibly bright people – knows how to read a map. To get from here to there, they use the Waze app on their phones. All they know about any geography consequently is the route they’re on. If their phone died suddenly, they could literally be “lost”. They never acquired map-reading technology. That older tech remains, in its way, superior.
I’m bitching and moaning today because I’m launching a new podcast – a very personal story about a feature film I made 30 years ago: “Tales From The Crypt Presents Bordello Of Blood”. The podcast is called the “How NOT To Make A Movie Podcast: The Making Of Bordello Of Blood”. I am absolutely at the limits of my technology comfort zone. Ahead – if I pull of the launch correctly – a big audience could await. If I “screw the pooch”, well, hey – it was another “great learning experience” – and don’t we all need more of those…?
I wonder frequently about all the tech that goes unused simply because people like me don’t know how to take advantage of it. We see that there are bells and whistles. Some of the bells and whistles seem appealing. But, most of the time, what we most want or need from the technology is more basic. And that’s where the frustration begins because we can explain the bells and whistles but we can’t explain the basic. We’ve reduced most “Help” to a list of directions. Do this then turn here before pushing that button. Forget the underlying logic – the WHY you’d follow the recommended sequence.
The problem arises when you get to a step where the tech assumes you know “the basics” but you don’t. Then the whole enterprise comes to a dead stop because you and the tech are no longer on the same page. You may not realize that as you begin pulling your hair out, frustrated then astonished that you cannot accomplish this painfully simple, achingly basic thing.
And, as the tech-rage roils like magma in your gut, the word that taunts you, that sends the rage shooting upward toward your mouth (or your fingers) is “easy”! The last thing you want to hear as the technology defeats you is how easy it is.
It’s so easy… and therefore I’m so stupid… Is that what the technology is supposed to produce?
It’s maddening! Think of all the great tech that goes wasted every day! If only there was some way to put all our magnificent technology into one’s pocket where one could use it as needed – then put it back in one’s pocket!
Hey, a boy can dream can’t he?
In the meantime, I’m going outside and have a hit of Durban Poison to help focus my mind. Being old school, I use a pipe (a cool, new, hi-tech aluminum pipe!) where I light the flower inside the bowl and breathe in the exquisite smoke. And then, as I count to ten – before I blow the smoke out – I hold tightly to the lighter in my hand.
After all, I have, in that hand the secret of fire.