Technology disappears over time. Sometimes it becomes obsolete. Sometimes it is hidden. Sometimes it hides in plain sight.
Our homes, offices and vehicles are so riddled with technology, it would be difficult for most of us to count up the number of key components – such as motors, lasers and integrated circuits – that we put to use daily.
Of course, some technology is intrinsically invisible. We never give a thought to the information-rich electromagnetic radiation the surrounds us unless we turn on a radio or pick up a cell phone. (And then, probably only if the signal is weak.) You can’t tell by looking at it whether a vitamin pill is filled with natural or synthetic vitamins (and, of course, either has a level of technology involved). Maybe an expert can pick out a field of genetically engineered corn, but I can’t.
There is a natural progression toward the invisible as engineers make technology smaller. Many components that once were large, bulky and separate have shrunk and mutated. Only audiophiles buy stereo systems component by component nowadays, and how many distinct technologies sit side-by-side in your smart phone?
A positive consequence of this kind of invisibility is that technology can get easier. Computers “leveled up” when the lines between operating systems, applications and content were blurred. I remember swapping disks in the early days of word processing. Though I have fond memories of tossing my typewriter aside, I would not want to go back to the days of such limited systems. I wouldn’t even be happy to go back to floppy disks.
Technology does not necessarily get easier because of convergence. For instance the remote control, which either has too many buttons or relies on obscure sequences. How many of us have multiple remote controls in our living rooms? How many of us know how all the buttons work?
Marshall McLuhan said that we enter the future with our eyes firmly fixed on the rearview mirror. Radios were originally called wireless sets. So, another way technology hides is by pretending it is nothing new. Today’s insulin is chemically different from what it used to be and the process for making it available is totally different, but we still call it insulin. Most televisions have no tubes, only interpret digital signals and don’t use antennas, but our only concession to this radical change in to call them HD or flat screen.
Most of the above is relatively benign, but what are we to make of technologies that are intentionally hidden? “Terror cameras,” many of them with number plate recognition systems, were scattered through a predominantly Muslim neighborhood recently. Many have since been covered with plastic bags, but not the 72 hidden cameras. On a more basic level, cell phone cameras are ubiquitous, ready to capture any apparent illegal, foolish or antisocial act we engage in. We are likely not to know that they are there, recording us for permanent presentation on YouTube.
There can be similar consequences to technology becoming so familiar, we don’t think twice about it. Ask young adults who became so acclimated to baring their souls on Facebook that they now are explaining to prospective employers that certain statements and pictures aren’t what they appear to be.
I’m happy that flush toilets, which were high tech just 200 years ago, would not even make a list of daily technologies for most people. But Dürrenmatt warned us in his play, The Physicists, that technology has consequences. When we turn on a light switch, it matters. When we forget our dependence on technology and how it changes our world, we put our civilization and ourselves at risk.
Arthur C. Clarke said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” but it could be argued that advanced technologies actually lose their magic. We stop paying attention, and the ethical and practical effects may be missed. Certainly, this is the case with the disconnect in thinking between energy consumption and environmental consequences.
There are other ways technology becomes invisible and how this changes our lives and our societies is not fully explored here. One of the more subtle ways that technology hides in plain sight is by engaging in our emotions and becoming “real” in a different way. This will be the subject of my next entry.