What doesn't work yet

27 September 2020
27 Sep 2020
West Lafayette, IN
3 mins

This is an excerpt from today’s issue of my weekly newsletter.

In the book The HItchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Douglas Adams writes

Technology is a word that describes something that doesn’t work yet.

I suppose it leaves some room for interpretation, but to me, Adams is dividing the world of “things that do things” into two halves – the stuff that we call technology, and the stuff that works so reliably that we take it for granted.

At one point, a gas-powered car was technology. So were highways, lightbulbs, analog cameras, and even paper and pencils. There was a time when each was novel, and new, and unreliable. Today, they work nearly without fail. We take their restless and perfect operation for granted.

What we do call tech today, by contrast, is a mess. The Internet, smartphones and computers, electric cars, space travel – all “technology,” all routinely unreliable and inscrutable. The details of why and how technology breaks is only known to the modern mechanical enchanters who spend their days peering into the internals – the engineers and the programmers.

Technology is what doesn’t work yet. Or at least, not reliably so. But in due time, the Internet and electric cars and space travel will all become as trivial as lightbulbs and paper and the FM radio, and we will have new things confusing and constantly broken, new stuff to call technology.

If I may put a pithy spin on this idea of definition by exclusion, I’d say something like

Life is what you don’t take for granted.

In the way that technology is what we notice, by virtue of its novelty and imperfection, I think life is also what we notice, by virtue of novelty and imperfection against the background noise of day-to-day mundanity. By that, I mean that, when we say things like “I need to get a life!” or “I want to live more,” or “She leads a more interesting life,” “life” is just our word for the stuff that we notice, the imperfect, the new, the surprising – the things visible to our tired eyes.

The whole of life is much larger than what we notice, in the way that the whole of technology is much broader than what we notice. And just as we might delight in the warm magic that a lightbulb glows out into the atmosphere if we look at it with fresh eyes, so might we find more to love in life, if we take a closer look and search for what we took for granted, what we haven’t noticed yet.

If you enjoyed this piece, you might also enjoy my next post, Distance traveled.

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