Technology for technology's sake?

or, Why I became impractical

by Adam Luoranen

  For most of my life, I have closely followed the progress of the computer
industry. I've watched this field of human endeavor progress from tiny
machines with no hard disks to machines that perform billions of operations
a second and can store more books than a human can read in their lifetime. As
someone who enjoys using computers and maintains an active interest in them,
both personally and professionally, one notable theme that I've seen come up
repeatedly is that of "Technology for technology's sake", the idea that we as
a society have lost sight of the originally intended purpose behind
technology--to create less work for humans--and come to focus too strongly on
making new, better, faster machines as an end in itself. With our society
more heavily dependent on technology than ever before, I feel like it might
be a good time to reflect on this notion, how true it might be, and what it
means for us.
  There are many reasons why people build machines, but there are two reasons
that seem to stem most deeply from the nature of human existence. The first
reason is to perform useful functions that human beings cannot do, or would
be forced to endure some amount of strenuous or boring labor to perform. The
second reason is perhaps more subtle, yet arguably as important, if not more
so: People build machines to learn.
  Machines and learning are inseparably related. The modern microcomputer
that fits on a desk--or in a briefcase--was made possible by the invention of
the transistor. Yet the scientists who developed the transistor never
intended for such computers to stem from their invention; indeed, they never
even envisioned such devices would be made possible. These scientists were,
in many ways, pure academics, out to discover things about how the world
works rather than to create new machines. Historically, many of these
researchers were employed by for-profit corporations, and they were therefore
employed with the hope that their efforts would eventually produce some kind
of marketable product, but the companies that employed them understood that a
certain amount of wasted effort was inevitable in developing new devices; it
was (and is) simply a basic fact of research and development that when trying
to invent new technologies, you waste some time and resources pursuing
avenues that turn out to be dead ends. The development of the transistor led
to many other discoveries about physics, and some of these discoveries may
never lead to any useful devices, but they are nonetheless part of the realm
of human knowledge. It can be appreciated that when trying to develop new
machines, learning is a process that often must precede invention. While
learning often leads to new technology, the inverse is also true: Many people
learn *because* of technology. This was true even before information machines
like computers became common; in ancient societies, people no doubt gained
intuitive insights into basic physics every time they saw a lever or a wheel
in action. The development of computers, which have the inherent ability to
train and educate people, has only strengthened the link between machines and
  Many people study machines simply because they want to know how those
machines work. When I was a small child and fascinated by computers as small
children often are, I wanted to study computers simply to learn how these
seemingly magical boxes could work their magic. This desire was not
necessarily motivated by any idea that I could eventually use this knowledge
to get a job, or even that I could use this knowledge for any practical
purpose whatsoever; I just wanted to know "What's in that box, and how does
it work?"
  Here's a simple but important question, with multiple possible answers that
people could probably debate endlessly about: Is such knowledge valuable?
  When home computers were first becoming common, it seemed to be the general
consensus of parents and schoolteachers that knowing how computers worked was
something good for children to learn. Computers seemed important, and they no
doubt would become more so in the future, so children ought to learn about
them, just as they ought to learn about math and other fields of knowledge
that can be useful in everyday life. Yet in more recent times, the tide has
shifted; no longer are children encouraged to understand how computers work,
per se, so much as just how to use those computers. In the 1980s, it was
common for even quite young children to be taught a little BASIC programming
in school. This was quite elementary and something that young children could
do without great difficulty (not much more than converting simple math
problems like 2 + 2 into a BASIC program that had less than 10 lines), but
today children are rarely expected or encouraged to learn such things;
instead, they are generally expected to know how to use office applications
like word processors and how to use the Internet to send e-mail or search the
Web. So we return to the question: Is a fundamental understanding of how
things work of any value?
  This question is much deeper than it might initially appear. It goes well
beyond computers and into the most basic questions that young children ask.
Most children, at some point in their preschool days, think to wonder: "Why
is the sky blue?" And parents, seeing this inquisitive nature in their
children and wishing to encourage the child to learn more information, will
happily try to answer the question as best they can. Rarely do parents seem
to dismiss this question as irrelevant, even though for most people it is:
Why does it matter if the sky is blue? You can't change it, and the blueness
of it has little or no effect on our everyday life, so why should you care?
Why ask why?
  Unless you intend to become a meterologist or optician, or enter into some
other field of science where colors and behavior of light are of central
importance, you are unlikely to ever need to know why the sky is blue. Yet
learning children are often encouraged to know this, simply because it feeds
their inquisitiveness and desire for knowledge. In a very similar vein,
children are often given little word or logic puzzles that help encourage
their logical thinking, such as "If Tom is 2 years older than Beth, and Beth
is 5 years younger than Albert who is 12, how old is Tom?" The answer to this
question involving fictional people is clearly useless information, but the
information itself isn't the point; the value to a question like this lies in
the thinking process that allows you to arrive at the answer. If someone told
you the answer to this question instead of letting you work it out yourself,
there would be no point to it at all, but it's the journey that's important,
not the destination.
  In many ways, a computer is like a giant real-world puzzle. A key
difference, however, is that the computer isn't made-up like Tom, Beth, and
Albert; it's a real thing that performs real functions. The modern computer
is arguably the most complex household device that exists in modern society.
It is more complex than a car, a refrigerator, or a television. Only the
human beings that operate the computer are more complex. For many people, a
computer is the ultimate puzzle, one which will take you many years--perhaps
a lifetime--to completely "solve".
  So there are at least three good reasons for technology:
  1. It's useful.
  2. It's educational.
  3. It's smart.
  This last point is a bit vague, but the point it's intended to communicate
is that technology, by virtue of being inherently complex, requires someone
to be intelligent to understand it, even if the technology itself serves no
"useful" purpose, just like logic puzzles.
  This forms at least part of the reason for "Technology for technology's
sake": People love to learn about technology because by the very act of
understanding it, they have solved a puzzle, achieving a sense of
accomplishment akin to solving a jigsaw puzzle or a tricky math problem.
  There are at least 3 other reasons for technology. These are less
intellectual and have more to do with the human desires for pride and greed,
but these are not inconsiderable desires and should not be ignored. Many
people hunger for technology that's new, and consider newness its own
justification. This grew out of the era in the late 20th century when
computer technology progressed so rapidly that any home computer you could
buy would be technologically surpassed in mere months. This accelerating pace
of technology development, which was maintained for a rather unprecedented
span of time, led to a simple but powerful association in people's minds: New
is good. Gradually, people lost sight of the basic understanding that newer
computers were supposed to be better because they were more powerful; people
began to form a mental association that newer computers were better because
they were newer, and this association was difficult to break, even in cases
where newer computers actually had several traits that were inferior to their
ancestors. This is not a new phenomenon in human society, of course; "Keeping
up with the Jones" was an English idiom long before home computers were
common. It has roots that lie in the basic human desire for competition. This
is, once again, a powerful force that cannot be ignored, and so we find
another reason for "Technology for technology's sake":
  4. It's new.
  Closely related is the desire for technology that will impress your friends
and enemies, allowing you to show off how cool you are because your
technology is, hopefully, better than theirs. So, reason number 5:
  5. It's impressive.
  Also related to this, but different enough in intent that it deserves its
own reason, is the ability of technology to impress its *owner*. People who
insist on having the latest, greatest technology often like it because it
lets them play their music really loud, or because the screen on their TV is
really big, or because their computer's case is translucent colored plastic.
All of these relate to the human id's desire for stimulation; the taste for
bright, colorful, flashing light and loud, pulsating sound effects.
Technology makes these possible, and in many ways, this effect becomes like a
drug to its proponents, addictive and capable of granting purpose to an
otherwise meaningless life. So, a sixth reason:
  6. It's viscerally stimulating.
  When I was young, I liked technology for all of these reasons. That was a
time when technology was genuinely becoming more useful for people every day.
Back when computer memory was so scarce that this document you're reading now
wouldn't have fit in the entire computer's memory space, there was genuine
everyday application in developing computers that were faster and bigger. You
could get excited by the new things that computers could do each year, and
you would have real reasons to get new technology, because it could do real
things that old technology simply could not. In those days, like many other
people, I was all for technological progress, because, as people often said,
"This is a revolution." It wasn't mere hyperbole; it really was true. The
1980s and 1990s changed the world. Honest. (Whether this was change for the
better or for the worse is something else altogether, but let's just leave
that for another article.)
  Growing up, I used to be intensely practical. If something wasn't "useful",
I didn't have a lot of time for it. You could have this attitude and still be
a computer person back then, because computers were genuinely useful, and
could be made more so by expanding them. But those days have passed by, and
the Computer Revolution is, for most people and places, over. A 5-year-old
computer is now fast enough to do what most people do with computers, and it
holds as much information as most people would ever need. This is assuming
that you're using the computer for classical computer purposes, like storing
documents and productivity programs. Now that movies and music have become
common media on computers, the need for storage seems virtually limitless,
but this is because the computer has subsumed the roles that used to belong
to stereo systems and televisions. Ignoring these and considering the classic
role of the computer as an information appliance, the modern PC has reached
the end of the road. You could store your entire life's worth of
correspondence and financial records on a 20-gigabyte hard drive, yet drives
of that size have been available for several years.
  All of this has left practical computer people without a path ahead of
them. You can no longer propose the development of computers as a practical
purpose, because computers are practical enough now for most business and
personal uses. The revolution that blazed hotly through the latter decades of
the 20th century is over, and many people have been forced to either become
impractical, or to abandon development of computer technology for the time
  Through all of this, I tried to remain practical. As much as I liked
computers, I saw the foolishness in embracing them as an end unto themselves;
they were useful, fun, and smart, but people are more important than
machines, and to remain a "computer person" if doing so held no purpose for
the world was a dead-end destined to culminate in a wasted life. So, after an
entire childhood spent preparing to be a computer person, I began to cast
about for something else to do with my life.
  But once I stepped away from computers, I began to see the foolishness in
maintaining a relentlessly "practical" attitude toward everything as well.
The idea that everything we do should be useful is eventually destined to
fall apart as well, simply because it lacks a goal. For something to be
"useful", it must serve some kind of end. Buying food is practical, because
it keeps you alive; buying an expensive sports car is not, because although
it takes you from point A to point B, a less expensive economy car could do
the same for less money. But what is the "use" in food if all it does is keep
you alive? What do you "use" life for? A great deal of what people do is
ultimately invested merely in the goal of staying alive, and while people
need to keep themselves from dying, nobody lives forever. Eventually the goal
of staying alive is destined to fail as well, and if that's your only goal,
then your life will have been a failed and wasted one as well.
  And so I came to the conclusion that life is about more than just being
alive. The purpose of life must be more than just to work for money so that
you can afford a place to live and food to eat, because that's only what you
do to stay alive. Absolutely necessary, but apparently more of a distraction
from life than its defining purpose.
  I became impractical.
  I realized that all the things that people define as "useful" or
"practical" aren't the most important things in life. I came to see real
value in learning things even if you can't immediately apply that knowledge.
I began to understand the importance of intelligence, the kind that can solve
logic puzzles, even if that intelligence doesn't actually help feed people or
earn money. I realized how necessary it was to do things that wouldn't
actually help prolong your life, but might do something even more important.
  In a very real way, being too practical might, ironically, end up being
impractical. The failure of pure practicality to actually be practical is,
today, illustrated vividly in computer technical support forums where people
try to help each other with their computer problems. Frequently, someone will
have some problem which elicits half a dozen different ideas that people have
for helping to solve the problem, but these responses typically run along
predictable lines like installing the latest patches and drivers,
reinstalling the troublesome application, reinstalling the operating system
(a ridiculously common "solution" which is like "fixing" a car by buying a
new one), or booting in "Safe Mode". If none of these work, people will often
come up with increasingly desparate and unlikely solutions like random
configuration and registry changes which aren't really understood. None of
these possible fixes are rooted in any true understanding; they are nothing
more than haphazard guesses. The reason this happens is because people are
trying to be "practical", i.e. they don't want to know how the software or
hardware actually works; they just want to make it work. In so doing, they
create myriad problems caused by a lack of real knowledge. If these people
understood how their computers really worked, they would be able to know what
the problem is, and how to fix it definitively, instead of wasting hours in
guesses that might or might not help. Learning about the computer might seem
like a lot of useless theory that you won't ever use, but someday when true,
profound understanding is required, it can pay off.
  Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that we shouldn't be practical as well.
You still need to use your better judgement and common sense, and if you're
going to stay alive, you need to make good decisions that will help your life
avoid common pitfalls, but getting a good education and a high-paying job
aren't the only things that can improve your quality of life. Indeed, if they
are the *only* things you have in your life, you probably won't be very
happy, no matter how much money you have.
  Nor am I saying that life is pointless or that there shouldn't be any
goals. Far from it; I've simply realized that the goals that people usually
set out for themselves in life aren't the ones that matter most.
  I still like technology, but I no longer think that it must be the newest,
flashiest technology to be any good. I am not particularly interested in
competing with others to have the latest technology, either. I still like the
wonder of technology, and how it can do things for people that seem
impractical, yet are so valuable to the human experience. I still like
learning how technology works, even if I can't use that knowledge in any
obvious way. Is that bad? At one point in time, I would have said yes, but it
just seems like a part of life now. Sometimes you pick up information that
doesn't seem too useful because it won't prolong your life, but it just might
enrich it.
  So, yes, technology is an end in itself, just like any other part of life.
It's interesting, smart, and fun, and maybe that would be reason enough for
it even if it weren't also so useful.