Saturday, November 21, 2009

Unleashing Our Inner Geek

It wasn't long ago that we as a society were a bunch technological idiots. If a piece of equipment had more than 2 buttons, it was deemed to be too high tech for all but the geekiest among us. Proof could be found in almost any home after a neighborhood power failure, when the VCR in the family room started flashing "12:00," and stayed that way until Uncle Harry visited over Labor Day and reset it.

Contrast with the future as envisioned in virtually any science fiction movie. In some hazy, though not-too-distant time, it seems as if everybody really is a rocket scientist. After all, no matter how complex the equipment appears to be, whether it's a starship, deathray or peanut butter and jelly sandwich replicator, everybody from kids to grandparents knew how to run it. And if push came to shove, there were plenty who could even figure out how to remove the plasma colatation tube from their personal communicator, and use it as a neutrino refloration device to return safely to the earth and ensure world peace.

So what happened? How did we get so smart so fast? Did some genetic mutation kick in activated by cell towers? True, we may not be all the way to that Star Trek or "Jetson's" future just yet, but we certainly have made undeniable progress in a very short period of time. No longer do things with knobs and dials cause us to wake up in a cold sweat at night. Put another way, how did we go within a generation from staring at a television set as if it were a magic transmission from space, to throwing down our cell phone in disgust because it locks up when we were trying to text on it while simultaneously looking up a restaurant review and downloading a new ringtone?

Probably the biggest thing is that we've stopped being afraid. We've discovered that with very few exceptions, pressing buttons does not blow up the planet. Consider our approach to learning gizmos and gadgets. In the old days (just 10 years or so ago) the first thing you did when you unpacked anything new was take out the 50 page instruction book and open it to page 1. Now, most things don't even come with a manual. Once you put in the battery you're pretty much left on your own to figure it out it works by jamming the buttons until you get it to do what you want it to do. And in most cases, you can figure how to get "it" to work, be it make a call or make toast with relatively little problem.

It happened because Bill Gates and Steve Jobs and other entrepreneur billionaires beat up on the engineers building the stuff and forced them to make things fairly intuitive and usable by all. As such, my mother has gone in her lifetime from marveling as her Aunt Elizabeth tuned her Gloritone radio to her favorite soap opera "Our Gal Sunday," to having a Skype video chat with her grandson who is on an island off the coast of Colombia. That's a long road in a very short time.

I thought about all this as I unpacked and set up my new Droid. This latest touchscreen phone was developed jointly by Motorola, Verizon and Google (yes, it's cool... write me and I'll tell you more about it) and was meant to replace my 5 year old Palm Treo. When I first started out with that particular device, I spent weeks figuring out how to get my data moved onto it, carrying paper copies of everything until I was comfortable enough to rely on it. With the Droid, I bought it on a Tuesday, uploaded all my data that evening, and took it on the road the next day. I flew without a net, and other than some minor stumbles, I never hit the ground. And mind you, this thing has more power than the Space Shuttle.

The great writer Arthur Clark said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." In fact we've learned a lot of the tricks, and aren't as amazed as easily as we once were. We may not all be rocket scientists, but it's starting to look that way. Yes, if you stop and think about what we can do with all this stuff you will be astounded. More likely, though, you'll just use it, and drum your fingers on the desk as you impatiently wait for the day when you can use your cell phone to clean your house.


Marc Wollin of Bedford loves his new Droid. It's the first piece of tech he's been impressed with in a while. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review and The Scarsdale Inquirer.

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