In Defense of Gadgetry
Forget Critiques of Our Love of
The Truth Is That Technology's a Lot of Fun
JASON FRY / Wall Street Journal 13aug2007
Not long ago I spent a few days in Maine with my folks in their house in the woods. It's an annual trip that gives my son a chance to see hummingbirds, chipmunks and other forest critters and gives me a period of withdrawal from connection addiction — cellphone reception is poor at the house, and dial-up's the rule for the Net. (I wrote about the annual Maine trip in more detail last summer.)
I often find myself talking about the Maine trip as an enforced vacation from all things digital — a mildly disorienting but not-unwelcome time-out from the care and feeding of gadgets, the summons of little envelope icons and the ceaseless checking and rechecking of Web sites to see if anything's changed. It's an easy thing to say, and saying it almost invariably gets nods and clucks of empathy from friends who feel similarly over-connected.
There's just one problem: I'm not sure it's true.
It's not that I don't appreciate hummingbirds and quiet woods and long books — I do. But at least this year, my wannabe Thoreauism was nonsense. I wanted to spend time futzing with my favorite Web sites and gadgets, and it wasn't just the pull of habit — after all, I happily abandoned plenty of other routines up in Maine. But I genuinely missed being connected.
Which got me wondering about the rest of our technological poor-mouthing. It's almost automatic to survey the endless march of gadgetry and conclude that we're slaves to our stuff, that having more makes us want more, and as a result we're never happy. But for many of us, this is a pose. It's a defense mechanism we can easily do without — because in fact, it's the defense mechanism that makes us unhappy.
Ready to escape this digital dissatisfaction? It's easy. Just repeat after me: Playing with this stuff is fun. Staying connected is fun.
It's another hallmark of our times that adults are increasingly happy acting nowhere near their age, whether they're nodding along with their Nanos, dressing like just-fell-outta-bed college kids or playing Xbox. (Here's the definitive essay on so-called grups, by New York's Adam Sternbergh.) For many of these Peter Pans — and I admit to being one of them — the digital world and its associated gadgets are the stuff of grown-up play.
And why shouldn't they be? The slow creep of technology can obscure the fact that our world would have been unimaginable not so long ago. Life is fundamentally different than it was before Google, before widespread email and IM, before cellphones, before TiVo, before digital music. Increasingly, we get most any question we can put into words answered, communicate with friends and family across the globe any time and from anywhere, watch TV and movies on our schedules and carry gigantic libraries of every conceivable genre of music in our pockets. If you're still sore about the fact that moonbases and flying cars haven't materialized, look closer to home at the wonders that have arrived. I can't imagine going back to the way life was before those inventions found their way into my life. I'd be miserable if I had to.
This isn't to say any of these life-changing technologies are perfect, or to deny their unwelcome and unforeseen side effects. Not every answer found through Google is correct, much of the world's email is spam, our cellphones drop calls, getting the cable company to send out CableCards for your new TiVo can be infuriating, and we digital-music fans miss our album covers. More generally, new technologies are too hard to use — it's no fun paying companies to beta-test their products. And even when gadgets do work as advertised, we worry about being tracked and stalked, about identity theft, about how to keep our kids safe, about social bonds and decorum in the digital age.
But few people I know would turn their backs on new technologies because of such misgivings. By now we understand that some or many of the new things we see and want won't be perfect, and that we'll wind up maintaining them. And we know that in finding new ways of doing things, we'll inevitably regret some of the ways things used to be. But by and large we accept this – because technology is worth it.
We want to be connected, and we want to have new things. Sure, we sometimes get starry-eyed about gadgets as status symbols, or hunger to keep up with whomever we think we're competing with. But writing off gadgetry and connection addiction as mere consumerism or product churn misses much of its appeal. We have seen again and again that today's science fiction is tomorrow's normal life, and we've come to enjoy playing with technology as it's transformed from one to the other. We're part of that transformation, and we want to see what will happen.
We see something new or new to us — whether it's an iPhone, the revamped iMovie, satellite radio, a location-based "friend finder" service, text-messaging Google for a sports score or someone finding their voice on a blog — and we think, "I want to do that." Does that go hand in hand with consumerism, or conspicuous consumption, or whatever derisive label you want to give it? Of course it does. But does it tell the whole story? Of course not. We really are embarked on a grand technological adventure. Why on earth would we want to miss it?