Technology was the secret of our Godhood. Machines amplified us. They let us see better. Go faster. Communicate at distance. Find our way. Travel on water. Travel in air. Escape hunger, cold, and danger. Machines allowed us to defy our mortality…for awhile. With technology, we became if not quite gods, far more than mere mortals.
We are augmented beyond anything that an average hunter-gather would recognize as human. The glasses on our nose, the cell phone at our ear, the PDA in our hand, the TV in the living room, the computer on the desk top, the car at the curb, the GPS in the car, all of these plugged into grids electrical, electronic, digital, vehicular, and locational. Man, we’re it. Our machine-assisted evolution has been a triumphant success.
What Nye says about Americans applies to everyone. (OK, not everyone.)
For Americans, machines were the concretization of reason. They were a representation of man’s ability to construct an infinite and perfect world.
I believed all of this (or most of it) until I bought a C. Itoh printer in the early 1990s. This technology promised to be extend my abilities but the price was high. It also demonstrated with sudden clarity the modesty of reason, my reason.
Before long I was stuck.
"push the 3rd button once and the 1st button twice while holding the CTRL button"
or was it,
"push the 1st button once and, while holding the CTRL button, the 3rd button twice"?
The fix for this is the escape button with which some technology now comes equipped. Pam’s iPhone has a button like this (as above, at the bottom). Whatever happens, however lost you are, you just hit this, and it takes you back to "start here." I no longer stop to think "damn, where am I and how did I get here." At the first hint of trouble, I just bail. I just keep hitting that escape button till I am returned to the reassuring familiarity of the first screen. I will try again, taken wilder and wilder risks, guessing ever more implausibly, because I have the reassurance that I can find my way home.
Take the control panel created by Sam Lucente for HP (eyes right). When Sam joined HP there were lots of variations at work of a printer’s "steering wheel." Sam came up with this. HP calls it the Q panel.
That button on the lower left. It’s a back out key. It’s an escape hatch. Get into trouble and we can use this button to sound the alarm. Every time we hit it, we climb a little higher in the feature hierarchy, and until, hey presto, we bob to the surface like a NASA space capsule.
It’s a glorious thing, the ability to just get out. So much better than having to master the whole of the C.Itoh manual, hold every option in your head, and divine what to do next.
Very helpful, but a little humiliating. Doesn’t this sound like the way complexity theory explains how stupid animals do intelligent things. They follow a really simple instruction set. As in: "Try this. And if that doesn’t work, stop trying that, and hit here."
What happened to that grand idea that cast us as masters of the machine, and through the machine, of a infinite and perfect world. Now we are much more like pigeons. I mean, really, that Q panel sends a message. "We know you are going to fuck this up. We expect you to fuck up. When that happens, peck here." That button is an embarrassment, our declaration of defeat.
People used to brag about their knowledge of machines. In the post war period, they were always going on about how cars worked. (Cars were then what digital is now, the most important enablement of human powers.) I couldn’t actually follow this talk, but this didn’t stop me from hurling around terms like "camshaft" and "carborator," to suggest, occasionally, that I too might be a master of the machine. Machine talk was triumphant talk.
And there was awhile in the 1990s when people would roll out talk of mother boards, chip speeds and baud rates. But that’s over now, isn’t it? We now understand that every new advance in technology will be yet another measure of how little we understand and far we are falling behind. Now mastery is finding the escape key and the willingness to use it early and often. I’m using mine now.
Breen, Bill. 2007. Streamlining HP. Fast Company. October. 134-140.
(for the story of Sam Lucente.)
Nye, David E. 1994. American Technological Sublime. Cambridge: MIT Press, p. 287. (This quote is approximate.)