Wednesday, September 29, 2010

On Unnecessary Technology

Jimi Heselden, the owner of the company that manufactures the Segway, has died after falling from a cliff while riding one of his machines. Police are still investigating the cause of the accident, but irrespective of whether mechanical failure, driver error, or simple misfortune is to blame, the tragedy illustrates an important point about technology - that the benefits that it brings aren't always worth the attendant risks and other costs. Near as I can tell, all the Segway does is allow people able-bodied people to move at low speeds over somewhat uneven ground while retaining their balance. That's a function easy accomplished by... walking. Heselden didn't need an expensive, complex piece of machinery to enjoy a jaunt along a cliffside walking path on his property - he could have simply gone for a stroll, and it's unlikely he would have gone over the cliff if he had.

This same dynamic plays out countless ways in lower stakes ways in everyday life. In my kitchen, I have a multi-part gadget that, depending on what attachment is being used, can be employed to cut vegetables, grate cheese, slice garlic, and the like. But it takes time to reconfigure it if I want to use it for a different function, the pieces are bulky, and it's a pain in the neck to wash, so it's not as if that versatility saves me any time, space, or effort. And if the cheese grating attachment, say, were to break, it would be more difficult and expensive to obtain a replacement component than merely to buy a new, separate cheese grater. This gadget, no matter its multi-functionality and nifty design, provides me precisely zero additional utility, and I wonder if I wouldn't be much better off with just a kitchen knife and an ordinary grater. Modern life is full of this kind of fundamentally unnecessary technology. Who really needs power windows or doors in a car, for example? It doesn't take much physical effort to turn a hand crank or pop a lock button, and with the old-fashioned option there are no unnecessary wires that can fray or circuits that can short out.

The ultimate goal of technology is to make life easier for ourselves, or to enable us to do things we otherwise couldn't. It should not be to demonstrate our own ingenuity by making things as intricate as possible, or to achieve marginal gains in comfort or convenience at significant risk or cost. Greater complexity is only an advantage if it brings with it greater functionality. If it doesn't, all it means is a greater number of ways in which things can go wrong. The great French aviator, writer, and engineer Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said that "a designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away". Things like the Segway definitely fall under the heading of things that could safely be taken away.

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