Malcolm Gladwell on the perils of invention

This is a particularly touching TED talk. Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point) does what he does best: he tells a story. He makes the tale of a machine (or is it?) engaging, funny, and human. And except for maybe thirty seconds, he doesn’t come off as overtly didactic. He’s not shocking, he’s subtly unsettling, and it’s a far more effective technique. You could show this talk to children and they’d “get it,” although you may want to explain what an “analog computer” is first.

At the risk of restating what has already been said (or implicitly conveyed), no technology is a panacea. Technology is a tool where merely magnifies* the abilities of the person wielding it. It enables us to do far more than either the devices or their users could do alone. Or to lay an old debate to rest: people with guns kill people.

*I debated with myself whether to use magnifies or amplifies in the above paragraph. Amplify means to increase the amplitude, which would transmit more power, e.g. louder music. This technical definition lends itself naturally to the metaphorical one. Not so for magnify, as in magnifying glass, which means to make something appear bigger without actually changing it. But it’s also related to magnitude, and the orders of magnitude (powers of ten) describe the relative sizes of vastly different numbers. (A physicist walks into a bar. The bartender asks, “how about a drink?” Physicist says: “It’ll have ten drinks!” Bartender: “That is an order of magnitude.”) Magnify, then, means to change the order of magnitude, which is quite a change. The magnitude is also the numerical value of a vector, independent of its direction. If I want to go west, I could walk or I could drive. The technology merely changes how far I go – the magnitude – but not the direction. This is why I chose “magnifies”: if I want to go east, driving west only makes the problem worse.

Try to name a technology that doesn’t have both uses and abuses. Nuclear bombs, nuclear power. The internet gave us Ushahidi and LOLcats (and World of Warcraft and spam and … blogs like this one). Motorized transportation makes urban life possible, at the cost of gridlock, vehicular homicide, and greenhouse gasses.

I am not Luddite, but perhaps (or perhaps not) uncommonly among my fellow engineers, I don’t embrace technology for technology’s sake. I always try to focus on the ultimate goal of the user. Don’t ask, “how can I use iPads in the classroom” but instead “how can iPads enable me to be a more effective teacher.” My phone tells me the temperature, but I really want to know which jacket to wear. The Norden bombsight may have told airmen how to drop bombs, but not how to win a war, or live without wars at all.

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