Culture, Technology — May 31, 2012 10:11 am

The Tech That Wasn’t There

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You’re hanging out with your best friend.  It’s a Tuesday night.  Things are rad.  You went to MIB 3 and it was enjoyable.  So enjoyable, you decide to hang out again on Wednesday.

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On Wednesday you have less to talk about, because you talked a lot before and after the screening on Tuesday. But that’s cool, because you’re mostly playing Ghost Recon: Future Soldier anyway, and talking and video games? Meh.

So then you have your improv class on Thursday, and of course you and your pal signed up for that together.  At least improv provides you with stuff to do.

But now it’s Friday, and the whole gang wants to hang out, so, sure, you two can hang out again.  Oh, and there’s that party Saturday night you’re both going to.

Sunday comes around and you’re bored.  Nobody’s around except best friendo.  And boredom notwithstanding, you’re not about to send that text.  You both know it.  You need a break.


I know, I know.  It’s a bait and switch.  You thought I was here giving you social advice, and WHAM!  Out of nowhere, it’s a giant nerd ruining your party.  Write Dear Abby if you need to figure out what to do about your best friend, ’cause I got nothin.

Here in technoville, we’re moving quickly into the land of science fiction.  We’ve already got tricorders, provided we don’t drop them in sinks.  Now that that’s out of the way, people are starting to get zany.

There’s Microsoft’s Kinect, of course.  Very cool stuff, but pretty limited in its application, what with it being a video game peripheral.  Maybe that’s why folks have made it do all manner of other things.  Still, it’s tech that expands on other tech.

Google Project Glass

I’m more fascinated by the tech that makes tech disappear.  Take Google’s Project Glass.  A tiny screen attached to some eyeglass frames allows for augmented reality: things like walking directions projected onto the street in front of you.  You can also take pictures of whatever you’re already looking at.  “They let technology get out of your way,” a source is quoted as saying in the New York Times.

There’s the Leap 3D Motion Control System.  Sure, they reference it against the Kinect (100 times more accurate, or so they say), but the ability to connect such a system to a Mac or PC opens up a world that the XBox 360 is simply never going to be capable of.

And the truly wild stuff makes something out of nothing.  Have a gander at Project T(ether).  This is some serious Minority Report action right here.  We’re creating and destroying, moving and manipulating digital geometric shapes in three dimensions of real space, all with our best pal helping alongside.

Now none of these devices is exactly claiming to replace anything.  All are input- or user-experience-oriented devices meant to augment the way we play with all our zeroes and ones.  But their development proclaims a deficit their creators presumably wish to rectify: the things we’ve been using have drawbacks, or could be further refined, or made better.

What we can’t afford to miss, as we develop devices that make the physical digital, is the idea of the perfect technology.  The book.  The revolver.  The F Word.  These things are all perfect technologies not because they couldn’t possibly be made better but because they defy complication.  Any attempt to make them better adds its own drawbacks.  Simplicity is in fact its own virtue.

For high contrast (that is, readable) words in a durable, portable, and cheap to produce and distribute package, the paperback book is hard to beat.  Yes, we have the Kindle, and for that matter the Railgun and the vocabulary of Samuel L. Jackson, but to the extent these things have added functionality, the functionality has come at the cost of simplicity.  That means added expense, added moving parts that can fail or batteries that can run out, added syllables that cloud meaning.

I’m all for progress.  I want to move digital blocks around with my buddies, I do.  But I’m not for technology–meant to get technology “out of the way”–that winds up getting right back in the way.  I’m for the most perfect technology we can muster toward its purpose.

The opposite of a perfect technology is a gimmick, which Webster defines as “all whizbang, no added value” (NOTE: That is a completely made up definition and should not be attributed to Webster at all).

Which brings us back to your trusty keyboard and mouse.

The Celluon Magic Cube projects a real, working keyboard in red light onto your desktop.  It looks cool.  That’s the problem.  When I’m doing work, I’m looking at my screen.  I’m not looking at my keyboard or my mouse, because I rely on the feel of those things to guide me so I can actually look at what I’m doing.  It’s the reason they have the little bumps on the F and J keys.  The keyboard and mouse just work, and well, and quickly, and with little effort, and–this is the crucial part–not for no reason.  When it comes to doing what they do, they have been designed to be very nearly perfect.

I’m sorry Celluon, but I can’t feel red light.  Maybe we’ll evolve to the point where that’s possible in a few hundred thousand years, but until then, you’re a gimmick.  An awesome gimmick, but a gimmick: all whizbang, no added value.

So, by all means, when you’re fed up and bored, take a break from your best friends the tactile keyboard and curvaceous mouse.   Variety is the spice of life, and all that.  Play with your magic imaginary blocks and take pictures by blinking your eyes.  Just try to remember–your best friend is probably your best friend for a very good reason.


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