Control-Alt-Delete

November 24, 2011

The breaking point of man vs. machine: a classic moment from the 1999 movie Office Space

Modern life can be really annoying sometimes. Just think of all the little inconveniences, nuisances, and irritants that make your day just a little less enjoyable. I don’t mean the stubbed toe or paper cut or spilled milk variety. I don’t even mean the person who beats you to the last parking spot at the mall (if you happen to drive). Those really can’t be helped. I’m talking about those moments when we poor, wretched humans must deal with technology’s shortcomings.

In a typical work day, who doesn’t smack face-first into some of these gems?

  • The elevator “close door” button that never works.
  • The printer that literally eats paper.
  • The hour of internet down time due to “emergency server maintenance” which was caused by “usage overload.”
  • The smartphone sync that completely and irretrievably wipes your calendar clean.

The list could go on and on. But why do we put up with all of this? With all our advances and highly-evolved intelligence we could eradicate so many pesky little problems. Yet we haven’t. Instead, we apply that power to creating more new technology to further complicate our already messy lives. We’ll come back to that in another post.

Let’s pause for a moment. Despite the countless downsides of technology, we should take the time to consider the ways our lives are different and our capabilities enhanced because of this very same technology. On this Thanksgiving Day, it seems fitting to reflect on not just the many great and wonderful things in life we often take for granted, like fresh air, clean water, and the people around us, but also the artificial things that enable and extend everyday activities. I can think of a few things that I’m pretty grateful for, error messages and all:

  • A global network that allows me to share my thoughts with almost anyone, anywhere and to tap into scores of information resources, wirelessly.
  • A small device in my pocket that I can use to talk to almost anyone anywhere, wirelessly.
  • A flat square device no bigger than a magazine that gives me access to an astounding amount of literature and history that would otherwise be nearly impossible to obtain (wirelessly).
  • An astounding palette of tools by which my design work can be created, communicated, and distributed.
  • The simple fact that if I can think of saying or doing something, a technology exists (or will soon exist) that enhances the way I create and distribute it.

For some, these facts are already old news; “bigger, better, faster, more” seems to be on many people’s minds. But we shouldn’t forget that we got here from a much humbler place and time, when today’s possibilities were largely invisible and the vast technology empires we know so well were once mere seeds of ideas. We should be in awe of what we have accomplished, however great or small, and appreciate the good that can be brought about by the marriage of circuits and code, imagination and human agency.

We’ll probably never fully debug our lives. In fact, it is in those “reboot” moments that we are reminded of our dependency on technology, both in its fragility and its power. We have formed a symbiotic relationship with technology, its bonds growing stronger every day. In days to come, we’ll see fantastic changes at blinding speed, and we will always struggle to adapt to them, make sense of them. We will continue to confront the gap that exists between human and machine — indeed, it will always be there (at least I think it will). Before we resist the urge to hurl our computer out the window or smash our smartphone to smithereens, let’s remember the time we didn’t have such wondrous, mysterious objects in our lives and be thankful for what we have.


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