Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Andy Rooney Derides Upgrade Culture, Misunderstands Technology

Here's a delightful little video of Andy Rooney doing his loveable crumudgeon thing, this time with his sights set on Bill Gates, upgrade culture, and the computer's supplantation of typewriters generally.  I absolutely adore Andy Rooney, but what he has to say here is a beautiful representation of how people on the other side of the so-called "digital divide" often misunderstand technology.  Watch the video first:





Now, leaving aside the issue that Bill Gates doesn't really have anything to do with hardware design (or the trajectory of technology generally, at least not directly), a few of the points that Mr. Rooney makes in this piece are representative of some fundamental confusions regarding technology--confusions that, I think, are shared by many in his generation.  I want to say a few words about those confusions here.

Mr. Rooney's central point is that while he wrote on the same Underwood typwriter for decades, he's forced to upgrade his computer every year or two, new computers are seldom compatible with every aspect of their predecessors' functionality--old file types are dropped (try to find a computer that will read .wps documents today), and old programs are no longer supported (my 64 bit Vista machine already complains about running 32 bit programs that are only a year old)--and morphological similarities are rarely preserved.  This is all certainly true, but the same is true of technology generally--the time scale is only recently accelerated to the point where such differences become visible.

I've advocated the Vygotsky/Clark/Chalmers position of thinking of technology as cognitive scaffolding before, and I think that metaphor is informative here.  Suppose you're using scaffolding (in the traditional sense) to construct a tall building.  As the building (and the scaffolding) gets higher and higher, certain problems that didn't exist at ground level will manifest themselves as serious issues--how to keep from plummeting 60 stories to their death, for instance, is a problem that's directly related to working on 60 story tall scaffolding.  Still, it would be a mistake to say "Why do we need 60 story high scaffolding?  We didn't have any of these problems when the scaffolding was only 10 feet high, so we should have just stopped then; making higher scaffolding has caused nothing but problems."  We need 60 story high scaffolding, a contractor might point out, because it helps us do what we want to do--i.e. construct 60 story buildings.  The fact that new problems are created when we start using 60 story high scaffolding isn't a reason to abandon the building construction, but only a reason to encourage innovation and problem-solving to surmount those newly emergent issues.

Precisely the same is true, I think, of technology.  Mr. Rooney speaks as if the upgrade culture exists just to line Bill Gates' pocketbook--as if the constant foisting of new software and hardware is the result of a pernicious conspiracy to deprive poor rubes of their hard-earned money without giving them anything except a headache in return; this is simply false.  It's true that the average life expectancy of a computer is far less than the average life expectancy of its ancestral technology (e.g. the typewriter), but Mr. Rooney doesn't seem to realize that each technological iteration comes with consumate functional advancement--the computers on the shelf today aren't just dressed up typewriters, but solve new problems, and solve old problems in better ways with each generation.  Rather than just being a vehicle for word processing, computers today are word processors, communication devices, entertainment centers, encyclopedias, and a myriad of other devices all rolled into one.  We pay a price for this advancement--computer viruses weren't a problem before the Internet made it easy to transfer and share information with many people quickly--but, like the problem of keeping construction workers from plummeting to their deaths, the new issues raised by evolving technology are worth solving.  

Mr. Rooney's typewriter probably wasn't radically different from the one his father might have used, and if we go back to further generations we'll see even less of a difference--Mr. Rooney's grandfather, greatgrandfather, and great-greatgrandfather probably wrote (if they wrote at all) with more or less precisely the same kind of technology: pen and ink.  By contrast, the kind of computer I'm using right now will almost certainly bear little or no resemblance to the computers my children or grandchildren will be using 50 years down the line; the pace of technological innovation is increasing.  Still, this increasing tempo represents more than just a commercial scam--it represents the increasing productivity, cognition, and innovation that is made possible with each succeeding generation of technology: as the tools improve, they are in turn used to design even better tools.  I think this makes an occasionally moving power button a small price, and one worth paying.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Super-Duper website! I am loving it!! Will come back once more -
receiving you feeds also, Thanks.

Feel free to surf to my page :: g√ľnstig kredite

Anonymous said...

Custom Sex Labels, Porn Stickers, Viagra Pills, Payday Loans
Get hard penis www.evermine.com sex stickers invitations labels
http://www.evermine.com sex labels porn custom online porn labels custom
Custom Sex Labels, Porn Stickers, Viagra Invitations and Payday Loans Favor Tags
sex labels porn stickers
Custom Sex Labels, Porn Stickers, Viagra Invitations and Payday Loans Favor Tags
sex labels porn stickers
Custom Sex Labels, Porn Stickers, Viagra Invitations and Payday Loans Favor Tags
sex labels porn stickers
Custom Sex Labels, Porn Stickers, Viagra Invitations and Payday Loans Favor Tags
sex labels porn stickers
Custom Sex Labels, Porn Stickers, Viagra Invitations and Payday Loans Favor Tags
sex labels porn stickers
Custom Sex Labels, Porn Stickers, Viagra Invitations and Payday Loans Favor Tags
Custom Sex Labels, Porn Stickers, Viagra Invitations and Payday Loans Favor Tags