The Double Edge of Technology

Today’s Music: John Fogerty – Deja Vu All Over Again

I went to the Maker Faire in NYC this past weekend. It’s a gathering of high tech do-it-yourself-ers. There were some impressive displays, including the makers of a space camera, about 5 kg, and small enough to sit in the palm of your hand.
It has a 3 mega-pixel camera, and is maneuvered with low power ion engines. It has multiple redundant computer chips to verify and error check every piece of data the device generates. By using the images from multiple low resolution (thus cheaper) devices, it can generate a composite 3D image.
It was actually brilliant in its simplicity.

Seriously, this was cool!

Seriously, this was cool!

On the other end, there was a series of power tools. All of these were computer controlled, and the interface was a WYSWIG What You See Is What You Get.
There is a computer loaded with CAD type software. Either 2 or 3 dimensional images can be created or imported. The software takes the image and sends it to the router.
In the example I saw, a maze was carved into a dowel, about the thickness of a broom handle.
And yet…

Here’s the thing that bothered me: it was too easy.
The image was drawn on a sheet, like MS paint. The software converted it, wrapping it around to match the topology of the dowel. The user entered a depth measurement for how deep the router bit would would carve, and hit enter.
The software guided the bit to make the grooves. It went back and forth and side to side, making the channel as wide, long and deep as the user had entered.

Look what I made! No, I have no idea how.

Look what I made!
No, I have no idea how.

There were also makerbots. These machines are 3D printers. Enter a 3D image into the software (it can be one you’ve made, or one that was downloaded) and the printer will squirt out bits of plastic to build, layer by layer, whatever the image is.

Crafting like that used to be the bailiwick of skilled trained craftsmen. The precision and detail, the development to strict tolerances were all done by people who had studied, trained, tried and tried again to do that work, and do it conscientiously and carefully.
As such, their work was expensive, but justifiably valuable.

Now, with the linking of tools and computers anyone can do it. I applaud the availability of cheap accessible methods for manufacturing whatever you need at home. Gone is the need for a full machine shop, for long apprenticeships and years of labor.
Everyone can design and build almost anything to their hearts content, and the technology and versatility will only get better.

But there’s a darker side.

I used to have a 1967 Thunderbird. The thing was a beast. But open the head, and there was an engine, an alternator and a compressor. Lift the hood, climb on in and go to work.
Now I drive a 99 Explorer. I went to change a spark plug and it turned out I needed three specialized tools.
But it runs on computers! It’s better!
As long as I have $500 to drop whenever I need to do some work.

You can tell it's a car because of the four wheels and engine. And nothing else.

You can tell it’s a car because of the four wheels and engine.
And nothing else.

You drive an x-wing fighter? You're so low tech.

X-Wing fighter? You’re so low tech.

So here’s my point – making something easier and more accessible is a good thing. It brings prices down. It makes it easier for people to pursue their individual visions.
Here’s the down side is, no one knows how it works. Give me a semi logical Graphical User Interface and I can sort out CAD. I can reconfigure and optimize a Windows computer without too much trouble, and sort out a basic setup on Linux.
But no one knows how it works. Send a dump file to Microsoft and they’ll say “We have no idea what it means”. There’s too much going on and too few people understand it.
So if you have a Makerbot but the platform driver is off 4 millimeters, it won’t print cleanly because the surface isn’t where it should be. And you’ll need high level technical support to sort it.
You can engrave your dowel and do beautifully complex work, but you don’t have the math to sort out what it’s doing or how it should work.

Yes, technology brings a lot of ease and efficiency to our lives. No, no one gets their TVs repaired anymore.
And it seems fewer people know how things work under the hood, and more people rely on them to just do whatever it is they’re supposed to do.

I’m not sure that’s a good thing.

Ok...maybe some technology is a good idea...

Ok…maybe some technology is a good idea…

(And for anyone interested in a great tale of what technology might be able to do, check out Daemon by Daniel Suarez. Its a great thriller.)

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59 responses to “The Double Edge of Technology

  1. It’s pretty much as you explained it Guapo, the craftsmen of old studied, trained, developed skills, and because of the time put into their craft and the investment in the tools necessary, the work was expensive. And rightfully so. It’s the same today – technicians study, train, develop skills and their work is also expensive. We pay because we don’t wish to put in the time, effort, or invest in the education and tools necessary to do it ourselves.

    You weren’t born with the skills to work on that Thunderbird, this required an interest, time in learning, and an investment in the tools to do so. When society demands it can’t get from Point A to Point B without a vehicle equipped with computers, society will also supply us with technicians who are willing to invest the time and money required to keep those vehicles running. And yes, just as with the craftsmen, this service will be expensive.

    I’m very jealous that you got to go to Maker Faire, btw!

    • That’s absolutely true, Alex.
      But the difference is, anyone that pays attention can keep the Thunderbird running with pantyhose, a wrench, duct tape and a manual.
      The unit to connect to the Explorer computer interface is a few hundred dollars.

      It may very well be that I’m just getting old and crochety too…

      The Faire exhibits were very cool, but it was hard to get around because attendance was very high. I was talking to the guys with the space camera ( They were really passionate about their work. I was talking to Plasma Physicists! I actually thought “Alex would love this”.
      Sadly I didn’t make it to the NASA booth.

      • I assure you I could not keep that Thunderbird running with those items. Not because I ‘can’t’, but because I’ve no interest in doing so. Choices. And again, we have no problem dropping a few hundred on a cell phone. Choices. : )

        And you’re right Guapo, I would have LOVED it! The NASA booth would have been my first stop!

  2. It’s exciting, yet scary. I feel this cloud of doom hanging over us that will one day explode and we will pay in a bad way for all this technology and it will be too late to go back!!! Boy, I need to see a therapist now!! :)

  3. Pssst – Pssst – Guap..over here – I have something to whisper in your ear…
    (looks around furtively) “I think you might be a techno geek” :)

    Ah yes, we’ve had this conversation in our house (not your techno geekiness- but about the cars)….You can’t DIY with cars as much – but yet I can buy something connected to a computer that allows me to wield some stuff that I have absolutely no talent in doing without the computer.

    Better? Worse? I think it just “IS” –

    We only have to wait until we run out of a power source and we’ll all revert to medieval lifestyles. Hazel branch twig toothbrushes will be the norm and lots of flurry will ensue when someone invents the Oral B Multi-teeth-tongue-mouth roof-cleaner.

  4. Although most of those words went over my head, I get what you’re saying. And what happens to us if someday we do lose our technology (doubtful, I know), but there’s nobody left who knows how to do things the old-fashioned way? Okay, now I sound old…

  5. ummm… you know I used to watch Creedence practice in their garage on the way home from elementary school?

  6. I agree that technology is such a mixed bag… especially as a person who values the artisan/craft traditions, and the investment of life energy that goes into hand-made objects as part of how I make my living. You pointed out some really relevant down-sides to the fancy things made by the machine. Here’s another: I saw a program recently about how people are using the 3-D printers to make their own guns. They laugh at gun control laws because they plan to make whatever they want. Guns are still in the experimental stage but they do shoot and the people are dedicated to developing them (and probably bombs too). That’s the most frightening application for technology yet, I think.

    • What you do with your clay and art astounds me in a way that a similar computer generated piece wouldn’t. Which isn’t to say that programming can’t be a valuable artistic technique.
      I just might be old fashioned.

      I hadn’t heard of the gun printing before. Oh joy.

  7. It’s nice to have stuff done easily, but for techno-slowpokes like me, it will just be more things that I can’t figure out how to do correctly. Everybody is going to need to have teenagers around — they will be the only ones who can find work — teaching the rest of us how to use this and that.

    • I think now it’s less “new technology” than new uses for what exists. And what average consumers can get their hands on is incredibly powerful.
      But no one knows how an iPhone works.
      I mean, when it works…

  8. Craftsmanship is NEVER EVER EVER going away! When everything was made cheaply in China, the same hullabaloo about the end of artisianship was heard throughout the land. Fine art will always be appreciated. Hand crafted work done with love and skill will always be valuable. It takes a great deal of skill and something else to create using technology, something that you can’t just pick up and run with… it takes vision. Walking around Maker Faire you see vision everywhere. I have Arduinos and Raspberry Pis and two 3D Printers…. I don’t have the vision. That isn’t something I can pick up, it’s the artisianship and skill and education and craft and apprenticeship and those things will not be replaced by the technology, they will only be in more demand and the tools to create will be different. Give an artist a bucket of paint and a brush or give them a robot with a bucket of pain and a brush… the technology does not replace the inspiration.

    My favorite John Lasseter quote of all time is “Technology inspired the art and the art inspired the technology.”

    • There is a lot of truth in what you say. And there’s a lot of value for an artist to let their imagination run to the very edge of physics and have a computer do all teh math to generate a solid object of that.
      But when synthetic diamonds were invented, the natural diamond market didn’t lose ground, despite synthetics being molecularly the same.

      But for everyday devices and appliances, all the addition of computer control has done is created more waste in landfills.
      Fixing an MP3 player is completely different than replacing a drive belt on a tape deck, and the addition of microchips everywhere makes it next to impossible for the average educated end user.

  9. I’ll agree with some tech. A fuel injection system beats the crap outta tuning carburetors and setting timing and dwell. But until I see a computer that can operate for MILLIONS of hours without a single flaw, I’d just as soon keep my OWN control of the brakes and steering, thanks all the same.
    Yes, I am one of those rare critters – a Luddite computer programmer. Sometimes, I think PC tech hit it’s best point with the Apple II, and we’ve been downhill ever since.
    (Oh, and if you own an old car, you need one more thing – fibred roofing cement. It lets you glue your rusted body panels together – kept the doors on my Vega as a single unit for over a decade. But you need the fibres in it! :D )

    • It’s the old line about plumbing – the more complicated the pumbling, the more likely the backup.
      Given my druthers, I’d stick with mechanical over electronic in most end-user device cases. Or less integrated devices, so a component can be logically identified and replaced.

  10. Okay, there was a point about 75% of the way through where you started to go totally over my head. “Data dump platforms perform perfectly provided proper propulsion of the flux capacitor.” Being a hands-on guy is part of your Renaissance Man charm. Me, I’m more of an idea man (which is a nice way of saying I can’t make anything.)

    You drive a 99? Get a 21st Century car. My car is year 2000 (which actually is still 20th Century, but whatever).

    John Fogerty gave us some great music, but unfortunately, when I hear it, I also think “That’s the A-Hole who made his Credence bandmates watch from the audience during Credence’s Rock HOF induction.”

    • I may get in trouble here, but I actually prefer solo Fogerty to Credence. I think his voice aged really well, and a lot of the early stuff sounds like whining.

  11. OK, one caveat to a viewpoint I’d say I largely agree with. I just got this robot vacuum cleaner from Costco…the Roomba. I have no freaking clue how it works, but it makes my day sooooo much easier and has probably saved my dog’s life (just kidding…I still adore him in light of the copious shedding). I seriously have no freaking clue how it works, I just turn it on and it picks up more dog hair in two hours than I could on my hands and knees with a lint brush. Genius. =)

    • Sure, we can make an exception for you Stacie.
      But you know what comes next?
      Robot TV Hosts!!!! Taking jobs from Americans!!!
      Then robot TV stars!!! How will Honey Boo Boo compete against electro Boo Boo???

  12. Gone are the days of pride in ownership – working to build something and then lovingly taking care of it for years and years. Now it’s I need this now, if it breaks next week who cares because there will be a better model out by then anyway. It drives me insane when I think of the sheer volume of waste this has created.

    • With that, there is also the newer attitude that things only a few years old don’t have value.
      You’re refrigerator is from 2005? Sure, it has tv, but it’s the old version of wifi! You’re so uncool.

      • My fridge doesn’t have wifi or a tv – i’m living in the dark ages!
        I hang on to some of the stuff I have from my parents and grandparents because I know it is quality – it has already lasted 30+ years, and as long as I take care of it, it will last another 30+ years. The replacements I would buy for it now might not last out the year.

  13. I think technology is great and vastly improves our way of life, but I still love things that are not “mass” produced. I’m a fence-post sitter on this subject and “old.”
    Great post, Guapo.

  14. The car example really brings it home for me. On the upside, technology gives people like me, who can barely understand the anatomy of a toilet, excellent cover for our ignorance.

  15. Oh that is such a good point that fewer and fewer people know how things work. It won’t be long before most people will never know how to do simple math or even know how to write! I don’t think most people under forty know how to count back change. Still I love my computers and electronics and google. And I haven’t flooded my car since 1971.

    • Ok, I’m going to fly my geek flag here and say that even though The Google is great for me in finding new music, I still remember the thrill of digging through a library card catalog to find whatever it was I was looking for.

  16. The truly sad thing about this is that we are losing the need for artists, human creativity, spontaneity during creation!
    Remember when the first real synths were released, i.e. the Yamaha DX-7. Naturally I purchased one and it took a lot of math and a good ear to program a new sound. A few years later synths could do EVERYTHING for you. All I could think was… Guess any asshole can write and play music now.
    Of course the latter has always been the case ;)

    Good and thoughtful post Guap

    • Thanks Miss B.
      There was that same feeling with a Casio MIDI guitar some time back.
      To this day, I don’t really like synthesizer or electronica – not just because I’m not such a fan of the electronica sound, but also that it seemed more like programming than music.
      I remeber hesitantly likeing Howard Jones when he was big, because of my aversion to artifiicial electronic sound.
      I managed to see him accompanied by an acoustic guitar, him playing a keyboard with no effects.
      That guy can play, so I don;t feel as bad about his more heavily synthed music, becaue he has skill and musicianship behind it

  17. Great post EG. You’re right. Even with my limited mechanical skills I could once do basic repairs on my car. Now without specialized tools it’s impossible to even get to the parts and without computer diagnostics you can’t even figure out what to do. Under the hood looks like something from a science fiction book.

    The flip side, as you note, is that technology makes some things that used to require skill and craftsmanship much easier. These days you can create songs without even knowing how to play an instrument.

    It seems to me that as we become more and more dependent upon technology, fewer and fewer of us actually understand how it works.

    Enjoyed the thought-provoking post.

    • “It seems to me that as we become more and more dependent upon technology, fewer and fewer of us actually understand how it works.”

      Perfect, Bill!
      That is exactly the point I was going for.

  18. I would have liked to see your 1967 Firebird Guap
    as those are one of my favourite American cars, well
    that and many others :) Lamborghini’s and Ferrari’s
    are also my favourites but alas are far out of my price
    range :( I do like Pontiac Firebirds though but trying
    to drive one of those on our UK streets would be a
    right joke, not to mention the high cost of petrol, it is
    already over £1.40 per litre so work that out in dollars
    and you will be screaming like a Zombie on crack :(

    Your techno posting is brilliant by the way, I just ended
    up waffling on instead of congratulating you on your post :)


    • Dude! Wanna swap places? You can have a big old Yank tank, I’ll take an old Pug 205GTI (1.9D, of course) or a Renault 5 Turbo. Or, since I’m a die-hard masochist, a nice Alfa or Lancia! (Oh, Lord, a Delta Integrale HF! Drool…… :D ) (Actually, I’d prefer an Opel/Vauxhall – not big on French stuff, though I wouldn’t mind a 505 Estate over here! Probably be the only one in Ohio!)

      • You can have a go in my Suzuki Swift if you like, it’s not very big but is like the Tardis inside :) Of course while you are busy with that, I will have lots of fun driving some of your exquisite Yank Tanks as you call them, oh what joy :)

        Have a great weekend Guap :)


      • Sorry John, I was replying from my reader and made this dumb error… I was thinking that it was a reply from Guap. Sorry about that…


        • No problem at all. I’ll pass on a Suzuki Swift – I drove the Chevy version as a rental in the 90s. Now, if you had one of the old Daihatsu Charade GTIs, with the 3 cylinder turbo making 99.5 hp, well …… :)

    • Alas, mine was a thunderbird, which was way too wide for the average London street.
      But man, would it look good!

  19. Thats a cute Mr. M. robot! 😀

  20. It is a slippery slope. I use to be able to “jimmy rig” pretty much anything (more often than not duct tape was involved) to keep it working or get it working in the first place. I was the Queen of the “work around”. Now, if someone asks me to have a look at something, for the most part I am baffled and confused.

    • Yep. It’s not just that everything is harder to impossible to work on, it’s that if something breaks, we’re stranded til, in most cases, we just get a new one instead of fixing something.

  21. I didn’t understand most of what you said here, but I know they said computers would give us more free time & it hasn’t happened. Some things seem ever so much more complicated than they used to be while at the same time some things seem easier. But free time? I think employers just expect more & more from each of us now.

Ahem *best Ricky Ricardo voice* Babble-OOOoooo!!!

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