Failed technologies

My friend John gave me this book for my birthday, and I can recommend it to all you urban cyclists out there looking for a chuckle about the culture you love so much

Bike Snob

You can also find the bike snob blog here.

The book begins with a note of deference to the Amish, who look carefully at technological innovations before deciding to adopt them or not. According to BikeSnob, the Amish provide a carefully tuned “technometer”, if I can put it like that, for what is useful and what is failed about technology. This is what BS says:

“The Amish have been ‘keeping it real’ longer than almost any other group of people in America, and they’ve done so by shunning frivolous modern conveniences. Just a few of the things the Amish refuse to use include:

electricity

zippers

telephones

automobiles

computers

speedboats

Nautilus equipment

plastic surgery

Ludacris albums.

It might seem crazy to live a life without these things, but if you really think about it you can do without all of them. People managed for millennia without electricity, and they were just fine (apart from the darkness and cholera). Also, zippers are just dangerous buttons, telephones are satanic devices that vibrate seductively in your pocket (anything that vibrates is evil), automobiles are simply buggies that are too stupid to avoid collisions themselves if the driver falls asleep, and the rest of the items on that list are just things people use to try to get other people to have sex with them outside of wedlock.”

The point is (you’ve guessed it) the Amish do ride bicycles.

You may not agree with every item on the list (I’d keep electricity, provided it comes from solar or wind; and computers … well, I’m using one right now), but you must admit, there is wisdom in the principle. That is, not every technology needs to be made, sold and used, just because it exists. Some technologies are magnificent, beautiful, ingenious. Others are simply failures.  If the past 300 years have seen the world change dramatically thanks to new technologies, then sooner or later, for the Darwinian sake of our species, we will have to find a way to decide how to identify and abandon a failed technology.

What would the mark of a failed technology be? A few possibilities – I think a technology can be called a failed technology if it does one or more of the following things

  • increases inequality in the world,
  • does irreparable damage to the environment,
  • makes life more stressful,
  • makes people angry and frustrated while they are using it,
  • makes the world uglier,
  • is harmful to your health,
  • is likely to kill, injure or otherwise harm other people,
  • etc., etc.

There are probably a lot more points that can be added to the list.

If you look around for what people generally think of when they think about failed technologies, you usually come across things no-one ever really used or cared about, mainly because they tried to do things that weren’t important (the talking desktop scheduler), or they solved non-existent problems (egg-slicers). There are even those that seemed to be what everyone needed, for a while, then it turned out that they were riding a wave that looked big, but was about to get swamped by a much larger one (the Blackberry, the Wang word processor). These are more like marginalized than failed technologies.

What I’m talking about is the technology that fails yet thrives, that does the kind of damage I list above, but which, somehow, we can’t get rid of.

Think handgun, think automobile.


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