In the day and age of smart phones, space travel, and virtual reality it is easy to find yourself in disbelief. If you take a moment to acknowledge the wonderful technological progress that we are surrounded by it becomes clear that our ancestors would not immediately be able to navigate our world if they were somehow transported here. Even though we have an operational proficiency at the use of modern devices most of us have no greater understanding of the inner workings of the cell phones we use everyday than some one who is just using it for the first time. This is a situation brought about in large part by the digital era which has removed the observable functions of mechanics from our view.
Once we could take apart anything we bought with household tools and after some tinkering, trouble shoot or repair them ourselves. All analog and mechanical objects have moving parts that can be traces and revers engineered by investigating their components and assembly. If you wanted to understand an automobile you simply had to look under the hood. Now opening the hood of a car shows you a flat box encasing a power cell where the engine should be.
Everything from typewriters to telephones have gotten increasingly sleek in their design and complex in their operation. Certainly, each analog process has its own educational barriers to entry, but much of this could be uncovered through some trial and error and empirical study. The digital world has systemic parameters that must be operated within. Before completing a hardware build a computer engineer must consider what software will be installed. When designing softwares, a programmer must consider compatibilities there as well. This is not to say that these considerations did not have to be made in the analog world but there were far fewer browser versions and file types to manage. Analog technologies also updated less frequently.
British writer Sir Arthur C. Clarke once wrote, “Any technology sufficiently advanced is indistinguishable from magic.” This seems to ring absolutely true. If you are a mac user and your personal computer begins to malfunction, your individual options are terribly limited before you have to bring it in to a technician for diagnosis. As sleek and beautiful as these designs are there is something particularly cold about them. Despite the broad functionality of all the digital devices around us they are not as modular as the products of days of old. In contrast this is what many computer users value about PCs, the fact that they can customize, and build them from scratch.
The closed source, sleek nature of certain designs represents a patriarchal approach to our products even though some of the brands themselves, have come to represent and be adapted by creatives. For many of us our only concern is that it works, reliably, with disregard for how. But that lack of concern for how things work, directly relates to the manufacturing, and business practices that drive business.
If you thought that inside of your car was a hamster wheel and acceleration would inflict a pain on the animal to run faster you might reconsider supporting the brand that would put creatures in harms way. As this is a far cry, it is not a far cry from what has been done with animal testing in the beauty industry. Our results oriented focus has truly led to stellar innovations at hidden costs. What it takes to uphold the world we live in may be more than we bargained for. We might also be perfectly okay with all of the collateral effects that come with our lifestyles but wouldn’t you like the option to know?
Some say this level of transparency is distracting and unnecessary, or that it could lead to the uncovering of trade secrets. It can also lead to a better understanding of the inner workings of not only our devises, but our society at large. In exchange for convenience we give up something. We give up knowledge and perhaps a little bit of freedom but the real situation maybe that we do not actually want to know. Since we are preoccupied with the function of our objects, how they do so becomes a mystery. A mystery as inexplainable as well, magic.