The Fundamental Asymmetry About Technology

Do I have to know how my car works in order to be able to drive it?

Well, I do have to know some minimal stuff about how to make it work: I have to know about getting the door unlocked, I have to know about the ignition, and I have to know about gas pedal (accelerator) and brake pedal. I also have to know enough about either the gear shift or the automatic transmission so I can drive forward and in reverse. And then there are a whole slew of lesser items that mostly show up when I drive a strange rental car and I find myself groping in the dark for switches, levers or buttons that open car windows, adjust side-view mirrors, turn on headlights, windshield wipers, heating or cooling, and car radio.

That’s a lot of stuff I have to know how to make work. Yet when I open the hood and can barely find the dipstick, I realize there’s even more that I don’t know about how cars work, things that by and large I don’t need to know in order to drive a car.

What it takes to produce a car, a telephone, a calculator, a furnace, a dishwasher, or to improve on one, let alone invent one, is something of a whole different order than the kinds of things needed to learn to operate  a particular piece of machinery.

This asymmetry, this fundamental asymmetry, between creating technology and using technology, is mostly a Good Thing.  It is precisely what has allowed for the incredible spread of technology in our lives, it is precisely what makes technology so successful.  Technology has slowly, then more quickly, changed the face of the earth.  It was a span of just about five years – and not so long ago – when the situation in the United States changed from it being rare for people to have a cell phone to it being rare for people not to have a cell phone.  I still have a picture of some Israelis talking on the street on their cell phone – remarkable only because at that time (middle 90’s) it was not common to see that in the USA.  Apparently, in Israel, cell phones had spread more quickly because at the time there was a long wait list for getting a land line.

Technology is not restricted to gadgets, and is not restricted to electronics.  I think it is useful to think of something like the Pythagorean theorem as a piece of technology.  Many of us know how to use it; very few of us would create it on our own, though re-creating it is within the reach of many more.  Some technology becomes obvious when shown: learning to use it is essentially the same as learning to re-create it.  For this, I’m thinking of maps.  What a wonderful invention.  Or coordinate systems, with two axes at right angles.  What a wonderful way to link a world of algebra with a world of geometry.

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