Thursday, 29 January 2015

From expert to user - progress through technology?

Growing up I remember to be fascinated by the question of how something works. You may call this the nerd instinct. Taking something apart and putting it back together has long been considered the ultimate domain of the male mind. We now know that there is nothing particularly masculine about it, nor that this curiosity is a specific feature of all human beings. In fact, I may have just grown up at the fag end of this 'attitude' of discovery. Here is why...

Technology has long exercised a special fascination on human beings and there are whole libraries filled with books that explain how something works. Whilst once these books straddled the space where the curious and the professional meet, now they fall into either of these categories, yet not both. Part of the reason is that technology is now infinitely more complex. I remember disassembling the engine of my motorbike in 1990 and re-assembling it again in two days, including the gear chamber and changing the pistons along the way. Now, you'd be pushed to find anybody lifting the bonnet of their car before calling a break down service.

The cause of the growing distance between man and machine however is not mechanical engineering, I think, but computers. An engine is still an engine, yet nowadays it is encumbered by a multitude of electronic gadgets measuring and protecting it like an impenetrable cocoon.

So, what is it that computers have what conventional engines do not? Mechanically, computers pose less of a threat, being animated by a low voltage power. Compared to the pain an out of control piston can do, computers surely fall into the class of harmless things. However, they did magnify an attitude towards machinery that has steadily grown over time. I would call it the 'black box phenomenon'.

The apple machine - simplicity lost? 

At the core of the 'black box phenomenon stands a role expectation that is characteristic of the new relationship between man and machine. Man has always had respect for engineering feats, but part of the respect was the expectation to be in control as well. This attitude grew out of the industrial revolution which strengthened the sense of ownership of man over the machine. Computers changed this radically. We are expecting computers to deliver a product, to provide us with something, no matter how. We have become users, instead of techies. The utility of computers trumps our sense of fascination with them. What falls by the wayside is  not just curiosity but also our understanding of how something works.

When the engine of my motorbike stuttered I usually took it apart. If my computer does not start up I take it to the Apple shop. I cannot help but feel I lost something along the way.

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