In a blog post at the New Yorker, Tim Wu makes some interesting points about the value of technologies that aren’t too easy.
It may sound overly dramatic, but the use of demanding technologies may actually be important to the future of the human race.
Just what is a demanding technology? Three elements are defining: it is technology that takes time to master, whose usage is highly occupying, and whose operation includes some real risk of failure. By this measure, a piano is a demanding technology, as is a frying pan, a programming language, or a paintbrush. So-called convenience technologies, in contrast—like instant mashed potatoes or automatic transmissions—usually require little concentrated effort and yield predictable results.
Convenience technologies promised more space in our lives for other things, like thought, reflection, and leisure.
That, at least, is the idea. But, even on its own terms, convenience technology has failed us. Take that promise of liberation from overwork. In 1964, Life magazine, in an article about “Too Much Leisure,” asserted that “there will certainly be a sharp decline in the average work week” and that “some prophets of what automation is doing to our economy think we are on the verge of a 30-hour week; others as low as 25 or 20.” Obviously, we blew it. Our technologies may have made us prosthetic gods, yet they have somehow failed to deliver on the central promise of free time. The problem is that, as every individual task becomes easier, we demand much more of both ourselves and others. Instead of fewer difficult tasks (writing several long letters) we are left with a larger volume of small tasks (writing hundreds of e-mails). We have become plagued by a tyranny of tiny tasks, individually simple but collectively oppressive. And, when every task in life is easy, there remains just one profession left: multitasking.
Convenience technologies supposedly free us to focus on what matters, but sometimes the part that matters is what gets eliminated. Everyone knows that it is easier to drive to the top of a mountain than to hike; the views may be the same, but the feeling never is. By the same logic, we may evolve into creatures that can do more but find that what we do has somehow been robbed of the satisfaction we hoped it might contain.
The project of self-evolution demands an understanding of humanity’s relationship with tools, which is mysterious and defining. Some scientists, like the archaeologist Timothy Taylor, believe that our biological evolution was shaped by the tools our ancestors chose eons ago. Anecdotally, when people describe what matters to them, second only to human relationships is usually the mastery of some demanding tool. Playing the guitar, fishing, golfing, rock-climbing, sculpting, and painting all demand mastery of stubborn tools that often fail to do what we want. Perhaps the key to these and other demanding technologies is that they constantly require new learning. The brain is stimulated and forced to change. Conversely, when things are too easy, as a species we may become like unchallenged schoolchildren, sullen and perpetually dissatisfied.
I don’t mean to insist that everything need be done the hard way, or that we somehow need to suffer like our ancestors to achieve redemption. It isn’t somehow wrong to use a microwave rather than a wood fire to reheat leftovers. But we must take seriously our biological need to be challenged, or face the danger of evolving into creatures whose lives are more productive but also less satisfying.