13.7: Cosmos And Culture
1:42 pm
Tue February 25, 2014

Everything's Amazing And Nobody's Happy

Originally published on Thu February 27, 2014 11:55 am

So, what is our problem? We fly through the air and complain about the food. We project our thoughts around the globe almost instantaneously and then complain about a one-second lag. We live in age of miracles. We live with machines that can look painlessly inside us if we get sick and medicines that can heal us from things that were deadly a century ago. We should be amazed ALL THE TIME! We should be freaking out in wonder, marveling at the view from 30,000 feet and the wirelessly connected supercomputers we're carrying in our pockets. (Apologies to Louis C.K.; see the video at the end of this post.)

But we're not.

In fact, we get used to technology so fast we'll probably be complaining before the first recharging of our new device. Why?

Really. What is our problem?

This Sunday, Charles Yu, the author of How to Live Safely in a Science Fictional Universe, took up one aspect of this question in The New York Times.

I once loved technology, deeply. My first real crush was on my family's Commodore 64. It was 1983, and I was 7 years old. I had a spiral-bound book filled with wonderful programming projects for beginners. There was a program that, if correctly written, would play "Michael Row the Boat Ashore," and another that would make a chunky ball bounce around the screen. I failed to get either to work; the computer wouldn't do my bidding. Eventually, I stopped trying. I went outside and rode my bike.

As anyone who has programmed a computer will tell you, getting the machine to do your bidding is a magic moment. So it might have been Yu's inability to climb inside his computer that led to his disillusion. He, however, would disagree.

Even though I couldn't actually make it do anything, I knew that someone could. And that was enough.

Yu then points to email as his next great tech-love

Remember ... when opening your inbox was exciting? When email seemed like a portal through which anyone could reach you, right in your most secluded space, could crawl right into your dorm room? Who might it be today: a secret admirer, or just the guys down the hall, asking to go get a burrito?

Of course, we all had our fascination with email end about the same time Grunge became a stupid name for a rock genre. Yu's latest infatuation, now cooled, is the one we would expect in the second decade of the third millennium: the iPhone. Like so many of us, Yu loved his iPhone when he first held it in his arms (OK, hands). But his love was not to last.

And then, as in too many real relationships, I woke up one morning and found that, for all my affection for and dependence on that phone, I was no longer in love with it.

So, why does the wonder fade, to be replaced by a shrug of the shoulders and grumbling about bugs in the latest app? For Yu, it's the difference between technology in the mind — in the imagination — and in reality.

The potential congeals into the actual, the possible calcifies into the practical. What is imaginable gets pared down into what was actually imagined. And it's all pretty amazing. But things are by necessity amazing in a very specific way, and with a very specific visual grammar and conceptual environment — and that environment is one that is closed, controlled, packaged for us.

While I'm sympathetic to thinking about the ways technology changes our behavior and, therefore, our experience, Yu's justification just doesn't cut it for me.

It is true that each new generation of "device" is better than before. But how can that obscure the insane levels of amazing that lie just below the surface of all modern technology? We don't fall out of love with technology because it coddles us; we fall out of love because we stop paying attention.

Simply put, we bore easily.

Once, when giving a radio address (an older technology which once seemed like magic), Albert Einstein looked straight into the muzzle of our dilemma:

Everybody should be ashamed who uses the wonders of science and engineering without thinking and having mentally realized not more of it than a cow realizes of the botany of the plants which it eats with pleasure.

Falling out of love with your iPhone is no different from walking from your car to your house and not even noticing the moon hanging in the sky. Is it weird that the moon should be up this time of day? What phase was it? What part of the sky was it in?

The miracle of technology is not just what we can do with it, but the unseen realities they shove in our face. Every time we make a call we could reflect on the invisible electromagnetic waves coursing through space and time that make it possible. Every time our plane lifts off the ground we can have a positive freak-out by taking a moment to remember that even the transparent air can exert powerful forces. Each time we down an antibiotic for an infection we can stop and marvel at the complex ecologies living in our guts.

The good news is this: Our amazing technologies are so proximate, so close and so much a part of our lives that they can serve as constant reminders of how strange and wondrous the world we live in remains.

So, Charles Yu, it's not too late. Call Siri. Do it now. Tell her you love her. But know that it's really the whole universe you're talking to.


You can keep up with more of what Adam Frank is thinking on Facebook and on Twitter: @AdamFrank4

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