Typically, I find out about new technologies long after they're already old news. This is a constant source of shame for me. ('Hey,' I said in late 2009, 'this cloud computing thing sounds interesting. What is it?') As much as I would like to join the ranks of early adopters, I simply lack the constitution. ('Now, what's this DROID thing I've been hearing so much about this year? Oh, it's been around since 2007? Well, who makes the Droid? Oh, it's a mobile operating system and not actually a phone? Can you tell me again what a mobile operating system is?') My buddy Steve, who likes to find out about new technologies when they're still in prototype form, regularly subjects me to conversations I don't really understand about technologies that don't make sense to me. (Here I would insert a sample conversation if any single representative discussion had made enough sense to me to stick in my memory.)
Technologies bore me. I don't care about 3-D printers or 3-D TVs. I'm not interested in transparent computer screens. I don't want to know how my analog watch was made, and I don't care how light bulbs--even the new, energy-efficient ones--are manufactured.
Though I don't care about how things are made, I am interested in finding out how things work. This is a subtle but important distinction. I want to learn how lean, mean websites are built, and I want to build some of my own, even though I have absolutely no idea how my computer is able to translate hypertext markup language (html) into artifacts that humans can interpret. I don't know what a "3G network" is or how my new Droid phone uses it to give me constant access to its features, but I do want to know how to set up my phone so I can quickly access contact information for the people I communicate with the most. I would also like to know how to set up my calendar for weekly views instead of daily views.
It's not the technology that interests me, but its uses. And as long as I'm thinking about uses for a technology, I might as well think about how to manipulate its features to support practices that meet my needs.
Clay Shirky, despite his recent unfortunate foray into gender politics, is actually pretty smart when he's talking about things he's qualified to discuss. In his 2008 book Here Comes Everybody, he wrote that "communications tools don't get socially interesting until they get technologically boring." And he's absolutely correct: For socially interesting things to happen, widespread adoption of a technology is the first requirement, complemented by widespread use of the technology. The automobile has led to a reshaping of our roads, our communities, our attitudes toward travel--has, in short, become socially interesting--because its novelty has long since worn off as car ownership has inched toward universal. Cellphones have supported uprisings, protests, revolutions, because we've had them around long enough to know how to leverage them for purposes for which they were not originally intended.
In general, I've made uneasy peace with my apathy toward new technologies, with one caveat: It's early adopters who get the earliest, if not the most, say in how technologies are taken up as they become more widespread. And early adopters tend to be young, white, male, college-educated, and affluent. Which is fantastic for them but not so great for people whose needs and interests don't align with the needs and interests of the rich-young-educated-white-guy demographic.
Still, you just can't do things your body wasn't meant to. I don't guess I'll ever be able to force myself to care about 3G networks, but it's easy enough to start thinking about the social implications of a tool that's 3G-network enabled and pocketsized. Now we're talking about the possibility of near-limitless access to information and communication: the building blocks for fostering and supporting civic engagement, community participation, and the chance to dance up alongside those early adopters, join them for a while, and modify the music to make a tune that's easier to dance to.
Now we just need to figure out a way to get everyone dancing. We start by lowering the actual cost of admission (this is one way that early adopters help support the social revolution: They pay $499 so you don't have to!), then we start pounding down the perceived cost of admission:
- technological Woody Allen-ism, the fear of trying a new tool for fear of looking stupid and / or causing irreparable harm to oneself or others;
- technological Pangloss Syndrome, the perception that the uses built into the tool are the best possible uses for that tool; and
- technological Morpheus Syndrome, the sense that uses for a tool have already been predetermined anyway, so even if there might be better uses we might as well just stick with destiny.
And--hey!--I think I just gave myself fodder for my next three blog posts.