Gadgets forever

Future Tense for Jan. 07, 2008

By Steve Welker

By Steve Welker

Six remote controls sit, gathering dust, in a basket in my den. We use two other “zappers” to control the TV, VCR, DVD player and other gadgets.

Downstairs in my workshop, I've strewn parts and pieces of computers and other consumer electronics gadgets across a 5-by-10-foot plywood table. It’s not my workbench. That’s covered with tools, hardware, fasteners and, yes, more gadgets.

I noticed the other day that we’ve recently filled a second kitchen drawer with cooking-related utensils and gadgets — egg slicers, digital and analog thermometers, olive and cherry pitters, etc. Compared to some people’s collections, that doesn’t seem like much. But we have a kitchen cabinet filled with gadgets, too.

I love the word “gadgets.” Its 60 points helped me win a college Scrabble championship in the early 1970s. But I’m rethinking my long-time love affair with gadgets themselves.

None of the Internet’s authoritative references seem to know the origin of the word, but they generally agree on defining a gadget as a small, specialized device in a class of objects whose members include contraptions, doodads, doohickeys, widgets and gizmos.

PC World magazine defined gadgets by naming them. The editors compiled their own “highly idiosyncratic” list of the 50 greatest gadgets of the past 50 years. The 1979 Sony Walkman (the first portable tape-cassette player) topped the list. The Apple iPod ranked second. Cameras, cell phones, computers, electronic toys and music players comprised most of the list.

Zenith’s original remote control, the Space Command from 1956, ranked No. 21. I would have given greater credit to the gadget that gave birth to two generations of couch potatoes.

However, I can’t deny that portable music players and cell phones have had a greater impact on more individuals’ lives. You see them everywhere. There’s now a whole industry based on accessorizing and adapting the iPod. And as for cell phones, it wouldn’t surprise me much to see them totally replace land-line telephones within another 15 or 20 years. Robert Heinlein said the technology that will have the greatest impaty 20 years from now has already been invented. If so, I'd put my money on SmartPhones, and, specifically, on the iPhone as the most transformative gadget on PC World's list in 2027.

Like many gadget lovers, I’ve been reading the news out of Las Vegas. The annual Consumer Electronics Show there attracted 140,000 eager consumers looking for “the next great thing” or “the gadget you can’t live without.” Strangely, year after year, many people return to CES in a futile hope of finding happiness — or, at least, something that will make their lives better — by being the first to own a gadget that probably will be replaced within months by “the next great thing.”

The main story at this year’s CES is home automation, which includes cramming as many functions as possible into one digital device with which you can run your entire household.

In the kitchen, for example, imagine a can opener that doubles (triples, quadruples, quintuples?) as a digitized recipe file, a digital scale to weigh your sugar and flour, a candy thermometer, a digital camera to take living-color still photos and video of your seafoam or divinity, an ink-jet printer to produce a hard copy of the recipe (with picture), a WiFi Internet connection to e-mail it to your sister and a cell phone to call Mom and tell her you did not burn the fudge this time.

To some people, that may count as one (1) gadget.

To me, it’s just one more headache. To begin with, the operating manual will have more pages — and read nowhere as easily, while raising even more mysteries — than “The Da Vinci Code.” Did I mention we have a large Tupperware box in the kitchen closet containing dozens of instruction manuals and warranty cards? This multi-purpose gadget’s batteries will run down halfway through whatever I’m cooking. Unfortunately, I won’t remember how to open the plastic cover over the batteries (most of the remotes in my den no longer have battery covers). And to be honest, I’m not a very good cook and most people outside my family would react in horror at the sight of my “fudge” (sometimes confused with the stuff that covered New Orleans’ streets after Katrina).

I don’t need any more gadgets. And I think I might be happier without so many.

Among my friends are several Amish families. They don’t use electricity and they don’t drive autos. They don’t own telephones, let alone cellular phones. They don’t use computers and have never experienced “The Blue Screen of Death.” They neither worry nor fret over a high-speed connection; their highest velocity in life results from one or two horses pulling a buggy. Blinking-red LEDs do not trouble them; they light their rooms with kerosene lanterns. They are, as a group, the happiest people I know.

(In fairness, most of their happiness comes from having close-knit families and strong community ties, deep religious faith and general good health from vigorous physical labor and organically raised foods.)

Maybe I will be happier if I start throwing out some of my household’s gadgets, beginning with those dusty remote controls in the den (what do they control, anyway?).

But don’t expect me to become Amish. At least. not until someone writes an owner’s manual for horse-drawn carriages ... in the future.

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Steve Welker is the editor of SurryBusiness.com. His e-mail address is steve@stevewelker.net.

This article, as well as reader comments can be found at stevewelker.net/article/61. Steve Welker is an editor and columnist living in Mount Airy, North Carolina. More of his writings can be found online at stevewelker.net