Five important questions technology can’t answer

An hour-long internet outage today made me feel ashamed of myself. I was ashamed because I felt helpless without the connection even for the short period of time. While a vast proportion of humanity lacks basic amenities such as clean drinking water, nutritious food, and proper shelter, I’ve made my life so complex that I can’t go on without something I didn’t have twenty years ago. Is this what life has come to? Is this what I’ve become?

Has my life come to this?

My parents, grandparents, and generations before them were born in villages in eastern India. The walked to school and studied under the flicker of lanterns. They drew water from wells. They wrote actual letters.

In the last few decades, our lives became “simpler” with electricity, running water, and telephones. Sometimes utilities  were available, and other times they weren’t. That was the only thing that was simple.

Then, in the early Nineties, cable television, the internet, and a liberalized economy opened us up to to the rest of the world. Soon we were relying on cell phones, mp3 players and laptops. We were buying Hondas and Toyotas. We were traveling on-site for IT projects and abroad for higher studies. Our BPOs became attuned to the needs of foreign clients in global timezones. Ironically, what was supposed to make our lives simpler actually made them more complex!

Today I’ve identified five technological questions that technology can’t answer.

1. What is the resolution on a television and audio quality on a stereo system that will satisfy us?

The first television my parents had was a 14 inch black-and-white. Once they could afford color, they bought a Sony Trinitron which is still in working order. They bought a VCR and the VHS format was in vogue for decades too. Not these days – in the last decade, I’ve bought a couple of television sets (including one in high-definition), home theater systems, and DVD players. Very recently I became the owner of a Blu-ray player. I am sure all of these will soon be replaced by newer technologies. But does 7.1 surround sound turn an out-of-tune song into ear-candy?  I can sit and watch Transformers II a hundred times in high-definition glory (actually I can’t watch it even once), but I still won’t get the same feeling I get when I watch grainy prints of Pather Panchali. How many pixels do we really need on our screens to feel satisfied?

2. How many redundant devices do we need to feel secure?

I remember the day I got my first digital wristwatch. I was so proud! Flash-forward to the day I bought my first mp3 player (really a hard-drive in disguise). I was pretty happy that day too. I own three laptops, four generations of mp3 players, four external hard drives, and at least half dozen flash drives.  I can safely say I’m not atypical. Decades ago, I used to own music cassettes. Now I have CDs that I never listen to and at least ten copies of each song backed up on my devices. How many copies do I really need to feel secure?

3. How many software updates and patches do we need until we have software we can use?

When you buy a piece of software, you don’t expect it to be perfect. You expect it to do the job that you want satisfactorily. After all, if a software company ever created the “perfect” software it would go out of business, since there would be no need for patches, updates, and support. I understand the need for security updates for programs to counter threats. I understand the need for updated programs that interface better with newer technologies especially in light of Moore’s law. What I do not understand is the need for multiple versions of programs that do simple tasks such as viewing standard graphical files.

4. How many buttons are necessary on a remote control?

Have you ever used all the buttons on the 10 remote controls that you have in front of you? “On/off”, “play”, “pause” and “stop” are probably the ones you use most. I once pressed the wrong button on the remote control for my DVD-recorder and got trapped in a sub-menu filled with symbols that made no sense. It was quite an existential experience since there was no way for me to get out. “Man can will nothing unless he has first understood that he must count on no one but himself,” as Jean-Paul Sartre famously said. So, I got up and unplugged the monstrosity. (I admit I have never pushed the “random” button on my Kenwood home-theater system out of fear of disturbing the order of the natural world).

5. How many razor blades do men need for a truly close shave?

My grandfather used to shave using Wilkinson Sword razor blades. I’ve never used a safety razor in my life. I’ve used electronic shavers a couple of times, but find that my skin usually turns beet red, which makes me look like I’ve been swigging the bottle early in the morning. I usually use cartridges. In high school, I started shaving with cartridges that had one blade. Then I promoted my stubble to the “revolutionary” Gillette Sensor which had two blades which was advertised to help lift and cut. Then I flew for a few years with three blades at Mach3. Now, I’m on interplanetary orbit with the five-blade Fusion. How many blades will I end up using to shave? Seven? Ten? Twenty?

Technology can’t answer these five questions. We need to understand human psychology instead.

Text: © 2009-2011, Anirban

Cartoon cc 2.0: (created using wittycomics.com)


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23 thoughts on “Five important questions technology can’t answer

  1. nice stuff.
    btw what do u do with “three laptops, four “generations” of mp3 players, and four external hard drives, and at least half dozen flash drives”??? 🙄

    and that cartoon is cool. liked it. :mrgreen:

    • Thanks so much! I follow your blog too. Love your sense of humour.

      I bought my first laptop in 2002. The screen is dead, but I have it hooked up to an LCD. My second (2005) one is for email and blogging. The new laptop is for work. The mp3 players have accumulated over time. To be fair I only use one (the cheapest one) and one doesn’t work very well. I picked up most of the flash drives from conferences (no one prints agendas anymore). One hard drive is portable. One is so old that it isn’t even USB! LOL

      • Yes, but do you still have the TI we used to use back in Fort Worth, now that was computing power! 🙂

  2. Nice blog.i feel the same when i go to my home town where ill have no internet 🙂
    i use my laptop and internet quite often but never know what im really doing with it 🙂

    so i purposely bought a book to read to avoid hugging my laptop all the time 🙂

    • Yes, books. Learning to love them again. I still like the feel of new books. Can any e-reader replicate this yet?

      Sometimes I have to shut off my laptop and my BlackBerry. I think there is a psychological difference between knowing something won’t be available and expecting it and not knowing.

  3. Hahaha. Good one. One more thing that has changed drastically is how we transact. The good old moneybag is passe. Now there are ATM cards, debit cards, credit cards, EMI cards, oil cards, gold cards, platinum cards, maestro cards, add-on cards, classic cards, exclusive cards, titanium cards, standard cards, non-standard cards, smart cards, dumb cards and a plethora of other such painful means that have to be put to use to buy a ballpen refill at a mega store:p

    • Thanks for your thoughtful post.

      I agree. Plastic is replacing real money. I think it is a lot easier to spend more money with plastic than if you physically have to count out the notes.

      There is something unreal about swiping a card and getting what you want. Makes it too easy!

    • Haha… we don’t say power cuts, we use the euphemism “loadshedding” as in ‘there was too much load, and we shed some like unwanted belly fat!’

  4. ANother nice and thoughtful one Anirban…

    Technology was meant to be our slave..Aint it..But looks like it is the meanest master…

    The more people try to make life simple the tougher it becomes it seems…

    And i noticed that COmic strip..need to learn a lot from u 🙂

    • NIsh, thanks for reading and for your comments. I am amazed at the speed with which the world is changing too. Do you remember Altavista and Hotmail? Who knew back then that Google and Facebook would be around? How long will the companies of today last compared to the blue-chips of the last century?

      (re: the comic strip: you flatter me too much. My ego will inflate too much now). 🙂

  5. I still shave with a one blade razor. I need internet around me to feel secure. I feel there should be no remote control. As far as software is concerned, it’s just always imperfect or, maybe, hackers are more than perfect.

    • It reminds me of a funny urban legend that security companies pay hackers to breach their software so that they can create a market for updates. Thanks for reading.

  6. As to #1, I believe television as we know it will undergo a revolutionary change. As for the evolutionary changes that we are now experiencing, I believe the ultimate resolution is that which is not discernible from reality. as to the revolutionary aspect, who is to say vision is the ultimate in resolution. Once we can interface the optic nerve the highest resolution will be that of the highest bandwidth sustainable for that system.
    I believe audio has already reached a point of diminishing returns. As a general rule higher resolutions (word lengths) ultimately afford a higher signal to noise ratio. Seeing that our hearing is largely subjective, most of us don’t realize the inevitable decline of our cochlea. Just ask my father who, despite his auditory decline still believe e can discern the difference between sacd and redbook. Ok i’ve ranted enough…full stop.

    • That is a very well thought out reply. Thanks for reading and posting.

      Already the bar is being set with what can be done in 3d with Avataar. I agree that resolution and which fools us into thinking what we are seeing is real is the holy grail. I see this happening in headsets covering the eyes before it comes to stand-alone television sets (only because it is easier to replicate 3d on a smaller scale).

  7. Not really questions for technology, I think.
    These are natural cycles of ANY product. If we broaden the window in time, we can find numerous other examples of products getting floated, then being made more advanced, then cosmetic coatings being added repeatedly till a completely new genre of that product arrives. Some products may change at a slower rate than others – and hence escape our attention.

    • A very thoughtful post! I agree with you with a few caveats.

      There are two related issues here. The first concerns marketing. I agree with you that most advances are incremental and true innovations (technological or otherwise) are few are far between. Companies are constantly striving to come up with products for new revenue streams while trying to ensure current revenue streams do not get disrupted. Therefore, new products with bells-and-whistles, as well as “new and improved” versions of existing products are necessary for any company.

      The second issue is that of complexity. Users do not have to adopt new versions if they are fine with what they have, and indeed most bright ideas die natural deaths because they cannot generate adequate revenue. There is a constant conflict between users and marketing with the latter having the job of convincing users they need to adopt the new product to make their lives better.

      I would argue that the impetus to adopt new technologies is higher thereby CONTRIBUTING to the shorter “natural” life-cycles for these products (and this has to do with the role of technology). For example pizza vendors are now making “new products” which are essentially pizzas with new added toppings, filled crusts etc. I do not feel the same external pressure (professional or peer)to adopt them as I do new “technologies”.

  8. Hi,
    liked your post.Very interesting and nice topic to talk about.Man has become so mechanical nowadays.Life has become simply impossible without machines.After i come back home from work i just dont feel like picking up my brush and paint to start of a painting.God damn… softwares are there to solve my purpose

  9. As to #2, a very astute observation on the redundancy of devices we use everyday. I concur with your analysis and add, at what point do the formats we use everyday become obsolete? For example, if I gave you a laser disk from the 80’s how would you go about playing that format. The same can be said of many deprecated systems/formats, so to sum up my point we not only have redundant hardware but redundant representations of data, redbook (cd) mp3, lossless audio and the plethora of analog formats. Think of how many times you bought essentially the same product with the hopes of higher quality and more portability.

    • Excellent analysis. I am actually hoping that vinyls make a comeback in a big way 😉

      These days audiophiles seem to swear by them.

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