Whimsy: June 2011 Archives

Here's an idea that's been on my mind for a while, and it's time to begin to flesh it out. As you read, keep in mind that this is a first draft. Your thoughts are welcome.

This insight seems obvious to me, so obvious that I searched to find the place where I must have read it, but I've never found it. I wrote about it at length in a UTW column in the aftermath of the December 2007 ice storm, which I had titled "The Amish Are Laughing at Us."

So I am going to stake my claim to this insight and give it a label:

Bates's Law of Creeping Techno-Slavery:

Any useful technology passes through three phases:
luxury, convenience, necessity.

It begins as a "can't have," but ultimately becomes a "can't live without."

The transition from luxury to convenience happens when the cost of the technology declines and the availability increases to allow it to be in general use.

During the convenience phase, the superseded technology is still available as a fallback. When the fallback disappears, we enter the necessity phase. We are completely dependent on the new technology.

The convenience phase is the sweet spot -- we have the technology, we can use it, but we can live without it (albeit not as well), because we still have the fallback. But we are pushed inexorably to the necessity phase.

In the necessity phase, we have reorganized our lives around the assumption that the technology will continue to exist, at the same cost or cheaper.

A fallback technology disappears when the cost of maintaining it exceeds the benefit.

Eventually, the knowledge to recreate the fallback becomes rare, limited to a handful of old-timers and the occasional retro-tech enthusiast.

By "superseded technology," I don't necessarily mean a device, but a combination of tools or devices and ways of using them.

Think about how you'd live your life if you suddenly had to do it without your own car. Or had to manage without motorized vehicles at all. Tulsa, like most younger cities, grew around the persistent availability of cheap personal transport.

Think about your home's comfort in the event of a lengthy power outage. If it's a newer home, it probably wasn't built to take advantage of passing breezes for ventilation, and the fireplace, if you have one, was designed for looks, not for keeping the place warm.

Another short example: Think about a trip to a large amusement park in the 1970s or earlier, with your family or, say, a church youth group. At some point in the day, the group you're with breaks up to do different things. Miraculously you're all back together at the end of the day for the drive home. We managed that without cell phones, and yet as I remember trips like that, it's hard to remember the methods we used to make it work. Or how we managed to convoy multiple cars over a long road trip without anything more than turn signals and hand signals to communicate.

A longer example: The library card catalog. For years, this was the means for maintaining an index of the library's ever-changing collections. The technology had significant limitations: It was available only in one place, adding, sorting, and deleting was error prone and subject to tampering. But it provided a way to maintain a complete, ordered listing without retyping the whole thing every time you added or removed a book.

When electronic library catalog systems came along, they were expensive and ran on expensive computers. Big libraries with big budgets could afford them, so it was still important for an aspiring librarian to know how to manage a card catalog. Even in libraries with an electronic catalog, a card catalog would have been maintained in parallel for a few years as a backup and to serve customers uncomfortable with the green glowing letters on the black screen of a dumb terminal.

Eventually the cost of hardware and software came down enough so that nearly every library could afford an electronic catalog. Patrons, used to working with computers at home, had no problem using a computer at the library to locate a book. Almost no one used the card catalog, and it wasn't worth the time of a librarian to type and sort cards in order to maintain it. The huge cases of tiny drawers went away, and the cards became scratch paper on which to jot down call numbers from the computer screen.

Ink, paper, and drawers aren't obsolete, but the application of these items as a card catalog is. And all is well, as long as the power stays on and nothing happens to the computer. If there's no power, there's no longer a backup. You could have an enormous library full of books to read, undiminished in their ability to entertain and enlighten by the lack of electricity, but you'd have no way to find the book you want. An older librarian might be able to point you to the general vicinity based on the subject and the likely Dewey Decimal number. Or you could just browse.

MORE: An excerpt from Eric Brende's 2004 book, Better Off: Flipping the Switch on Technology, with an anecdote about the confusion at a fast-food drive-through window when the cash register doesn't work. Brende, with a degree from Yale and a master's from MIT, now lives a low-tech life with his family in St. Louis, working as a rickshaw driver and soapmaker, inspired by his interaction with the Amish.

About this Archive

This page is a archive of entries in the Whimsy category from June 2011.

Whimsy: December 2010 is the previous archive.

Whimsy: August 2011 is the next archive.

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