Journal Entries

DNA's Observations on Technology (part II)

Two journal postings in one calendar year. A new record for me!

A quick side note before I get started: Between writing the last entry and this one, I read DNA's last book, "The Salmon of Doubt". I was delighted to find that many of the ideas I'm describing here are explained in his own words in the book. I highly recommend getting yourself a copy (and reading it, too!) if you haven't already.

As promised, here's Douglas Adams' second observation on technology that changed my life: computers are just high-tech modelling devices. A computer is nothing but a lump of plastic and silicon without programming, just as clay is nothing but a formless lump without a sculptor's hands to mold it. This means computers are very adaptable.

However, the adaptability of computers is a double-edged sword. In the Good Ol' Days, people used to spend a lot of time designing and building things. For example, if I bought a radio, there was an electronic circuit inside designed by a human being. And the radio worked quite well. That's because if there were anything wrong with it, the designer would be in a heap of trouble...thousands of units would have to be recalled, scrapped, and replaced.

With software, the "designer" is a programmer. But there's one major distinction between the designer of an old radio and a computer programmer: the programmer isn't under as much pressure to avoid mistakes, and so most computer programs are essentially unfinished prototypes. If a programmer screws up, he can just tell his customers to wait for the next version. The computer itself doesn't need to be recalled, and the expense of issuing updates and fixes is much lower to the developer...and consequently much higher to the consumer, who is forced to rely on a shoddy, unreliable, unfinished product. Desktop computers as we know them are unreliable...they crash, contract viruses, and destroy the document you worked days to type. That's because there's little economic motivation for programmers to create a reliable product.

This means we'll always notice our computers, and we'll never stop thinking of them as technology...which, if you believe my last journal entry, means they will never really become useful. Or, more to the point, they are precisely as useful as their programming is finished.

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Latest reply: Nov 27, 2003

DNA's Observations on Technology (part I)

It's been a little over two years since I posted my last journal entry in which I mentioned that Douglas Adams gave a speech in 1997 that changed my life (or at least, it changed my career.) Maybe it's about time I shared the secrets I learned from him...two brilliant observations on the nature of technology.

His first observation was that technology can only become useful when we stop noticing other words, when we stop thinking of it as technology. In other words, useful technology doesn't misbehave, crash, make obnoxious noises, lose its signal, etc. It's not a novelty that we're looking for an excuse to exploit. Rather, it's something with which we interact so naturally that we don't even think about it...but thanks to its technology, our lives are improved.

Example of useful technology: the brakes in a modern car can sense road conditions (wet, icy, etc.) and how suddenly you pressed the brake pedal, and adjust accordingly to provide the safest, fastest, most comfortable stop possible while reducing the chance of skidding and losing control of the vehicle. I admit this sort of technology is not very exciting, but it definitely improves my life.

Example of not-useful technology: I don't understand this, but a lot of people envision the "house of the future" as containing all sorts normal appliances with touch-screens and web-browsers built into them. Is a microwave oven really a better device if you can look up recipes (or e-mail, or pornography) on the Internet with it? Given that the world has yet to produce a crash-proof web browser, how often would I have to reboot my microwave? And wouldn't doing so cause my frozen dinner to cook unevenly and taste even worse than it would otherwise? Is this really an improvement?

Thank you very much, but if it's all the same to you, I'll stick with my mother's all-analog first-generation radar range.

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Latest reply: Feb 1, 2003

Jack Point of All Trades

So far, I've remained pretty anonymous on H2G2, so I thought I'd post a little information about myself.

I'm a 20-something software engineer living in Santa Barbara, California, USA. In 1997, I heard Douglas Adams speak at SCO Forum (a computer conference). I had been a fan of his for many years, ever since reading the Hitchhiker's books in the mid 80's...but his speech about the usefulness (or lack thereof) of certain kinds of technology really made an impression on me, and actually influenced some of my career choices, leading to my current employment. (I could spend a week talking about this. Maybe I'll post some articles about it later.)

In any case, I have a very wide range of interests, including music, cooking, health/nutrition, martial arts, science/technology, and literature. Jack of all trades, master of...well, one or two, maybe.

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Latest reply: Dec 3, 2000

Biking in the rain

Looks like I might have to bike home from work in the rain today.
That's what I get for trying to lead a healthy, active lifestyle.
Well, it can't hurt. It's just water, right?

Discuss this Journal entry [4]

Latest reply: Apr 28, 1999

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Jack Point

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