Making better tech: It's not 'magic'

From car windows to iPads, new technology begins with a 'wow' and ends with a yawn -- but by then we've moved on to the new thing.

The 2010 General Motors concept car, the En-V or ‘Electronic Networked-Vehicle

The British writer and scientist Arthur C. Clarke proposed three laws of the future, the most memorable of which is that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”

I felt that way the first time I rode in a car with power windows. In the mid-1960s, the crank-down was the norm. Pushing a button to open a window seemed like something only James Bond could do. But the technology goes back to before World War II. Lincolns and Cadillacs had had power windows since the ’50s.

What was commonplace in some circles was magic to me. Not many kids amuse themselves by making car windows go up and down these days. Nor did I, after a few weeks of annoyed admonitions from my parents.

Once out of its package, a gotta-have-it technology becomes routine. It may be useful. It’s no longer novel. This is not meant as a slight to engineering or marketing. Without the new and improved, we’d still be scratching seeds into the ground with sharp sticks and sending messages by smoke signal (though those were improvements, too, in their day).

Tech that makes one part of the world yawn can still be a wonder in another. Cellphones, for instance, are just now having a profound effect in areas that never had decent phone service.

You may use your cellphone to check e-mail, take pictures, text a friend, play solitaire, and even occasionally make a call. In the African nation of Niger, where phone service was always spotty, cellular technology has let rural farmers leapfrog the land-line phase and go directly to the 21st century. Now, instead of carting produce from market to market, settling for the best price they can get before their harvest spoils, they call around, agree on a price, and make one trip. Because their fingers do the walking, food stays fresh and prices stay steady.

Other innovations that used to be novel are now being put to new uses. Satellite imagery has been around for decades. Now it is tracking human rights abuses in remote conflicts. New types of printers can mass-produce semiconductors, solar cells, even batteries. Artificial photosynthesis and bioengineered microbes are transforming algae and industrial waste into energy.

No consideration of technology that improves lives would be complete without an acknowledgment of the dark side – the blowout preventer that failed, causing last year’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico; the crippled nuclear reactors that have become a complex and chronic crisis for Japan; the failed levees of New Orleans. Face it, your cellphone will conk out. A storm will shut off the lights. Even power windows break.

The more complex the technology, the more points of vulnerability. This doesn’t mean we should fear technology any more than we should be in awe of it. Technology is a human product, neither fire from Olympus nor Trojan horse.

But humility does seem to be essential in dealing with technology. We are now learning at great pain and expense what we didn’t know about nuclear safety and deep-sea drilling.

Ninety-nine years ago, the wonder of the age set sail from Southhampton, England. The world was shaken when the Titanic went down, taking 1,517 people with it. But ocean transportation didn’t stop. Navigation got better, communication improved, safety standards tightened. More ships sail and fewer lives are lost at sea (52 in 2009 on commercial vessels, according to the European Maritime Safety Agency) than at any point in modern history.

Tech makes our lives better as long as we make our tech better.

John Yemma is the editor of The Christian Science Monitor.

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