How people can affect technology

Future Tense for Mar. 06, 2006

I wrote last week’s column about something trivial — when he heard about it, Jim’s first reaction was, “How can anyone write this much about buying a toaster?” — so I could write this week’s column about something serious: how people can affect technology.

I’m not talking about a specific technology, such as computers or CAT scanners or cell phones. No, my friend, I’m talking about Technology with a capital “T” and that rhymes with “P” and — with apologies to “The Music Man” and Meredith Willson — that stands for Problems, not pool (which, except for replacing the balls’ elephant ivory with John Wesley Hyatt’s industrial plastic in 1870, remains largely untouched by technological innovation).

Consider the toaster. Invented 80-some years ago, it simply browns bread on both sides at once. But because people up until the late-1920s still cut bread to whatever thickness they desired, the standard toaster owes much of its success to Otto Rohwedder’s concurrent invention: sliced bread. When bakeries began producing presliced, pre-packaged bread — the first to do so was in my mother’s and wife’s hometown, Chillicothe, Mo. — consumers no longer needed to worry about choosing a toaster with wide or narrow, long or short slots. One size fit all needs.

Since then, of course, there have been revolutionary changes in materials, food and manufacturing technology. Beyond bread, toasters may have to cook bagels, English muffins and Pop-Tarts (invented by Post in 1964, but popularized by Kellogg’s). A toaster’s heating element and wire racks, fully exposed in the early models, now are enclosed in steel, aluminum or plastic housings with an array of textures and colors. And the controls, once limited to springs, a mechanical lever and a single dial or knob, now may include digital buttons or even LED touchscreens.

A host of choices, in almost every product, confronts anyone buying modern Technology.

Not everyone welcomes that added complexity in our lives. I, personally, don’t like having to make one “best” choice from a large selection of similar devices (31, count ’em, 31 different toasters!). That’s why I turn to trusted sources of information such as Consumer Reports. It also explains the popularity of on-line product-rating sites, especially ones where customers relate their own experiences with consumer items.

Many people don’t like the changes that technology forces into their lives.

In August, The Gallup Poll questioned Americans about the high-tech gadgets they use and their overall reaction to technology. More than anything else, age divided their opinions.

“Virtually all those in the 18 to 49 age group are excited or comfortable when first using a new-tech gizmo,” The Gallup Poll said. But among people ages 50 and over, 43 percent said they were “nervous” and 9 percent admitted being “panicked” when confronted with new technology.

Reading the Gallup survey reminded me of a recent conversation with one of my older (in her 60s) friends, whose children bought her and her husband a computer. She hasn’t used it. She feels bad about not using it, considering the children’s investment and hopeful expectations. But she’s worried about breaking it, about its being too complicated to learn “at my age” and about the time it might take from other pleasures in her life, such as reading a good mystery novel.

My friend is not alone with her worries. Nearly half of the people in the Gallup survey — and more than three-fourths of those 50 and older — said they have problems “some of the time” when figuring out how to use new high-tech gadgets; 14 percent, or one out of seven, said “most of the time;” and 6 percent said new technology always confounds them.

Growing older does not automatically make anyone an AARP member, neither does it convert them into born-again Luddites. (From 1811 to 1813 in England, former cottage workers caused widespread destruction of the technology — textile machines in wool and cotton mills — that took away their jobs. Police, armed soldiers, hanging 17 rioters for sabotage and transporting hundreds to Australia finally ended the movement, but “Luddite” remains in the language as a synonym for people who hate technology.) The Gallup Poll found that older people are about as likely as younger ones to own and use cell phones, DVD players, cable or satellite television services and digital cameras. To me, the findings suggest that people of any age will adopt — and even welcome — new technology when it presents an obvious improvement or better value compared to the old one.

Now, people may disagree about what constitutes a “functional improvement.” The late designer and professor Victor Papanek spoke and wrote eloquently about the topic — his “Design for the Real World,” published in 1971, is one of the few textbooks I still have from college — and sharply criticized over-designed manufactured products with maladapted or essentially useless features. “You wouldn’t hang an electric motor on a bathtub just because you could, would you?” he asked rhetorically.

Actually, Roy Jacuzzi did just that. By hooking an electric pump to a bathtub, he invented the first fully integrated whirlpool bath in 1968 and, two years later — in effect, by throwing a toaster into the tub —he created the first heated outdoor spa. Millions of hot tub enthuasists can be glad Jacuzzi never heard Papanek’s lectures.

Philosophically, though, I still believe Papanek jumped on the right track. Thirty-five years ago, he spoke to the leading edge of the Baby Boom generation. This year, the first Baby Boomers turned 60 and more than half of us are now 50.

We’re the largest generation in history. And when we say we want well-designed, easy-to-operate, cleanly functional Technology that doesn’t add Problems in our lives, the manufacturers had better march to our tune ... in the future.

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