Technology’s Big Contradiction

Older people always tell me how lucky I am to grow up with the internet, smart phones, online resources like Wikipedia, and so on. I often think the same thing, but sometimes I feel the opposite.

Usually 80s movies (actually just Ferris Bueller’s Day Off on repeat) make me feel like this. I wish life was simpler, that I could realistically just leave my phone at home and pretend it didn’t exist. Some days I miss my flip phone.

These thoughts lead me to ask: does technology function more to simplify, or to overcomplicate?

Need → Invention

If technology simplifies, then it basically means technology solves problems. “Necessity is the mother of invention” is a classic saying that means problems force people to invent solutions. It implies new products are invented to meet some demand, that if you really need to do something, you’ll find a way to do it.

We like this idea because it makes sense. It’s easy to look at history and spot the cause-effect relationship between necessity and new products.

Take James Ritty, a bar owner in the late 1800s, who needed his employees to stop pocketing customers’ money, so he invented a mechanical device he called “the incorruptible cashier.” Now we call it a cash register. When an ice cream vendor ran out of dishes at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, his neighbor Ernest Hamwi rolled one of his thin waffle-esque pastries into a cone for the vendor to use as a dish, and we had the first ice cream cone. And so on.

But this isn’t the whole story.

Many inventions don’t result from necessity. Some people are just curious, or like to make things — even if the new product doesn’t solve an existing ‘need.’ In fact, some argue that necessity can’t be the mother of invention, because true inventions are forward-looking. This sentiment is best summarized by a quote attributed to Henry Ford, speaking about the automobile. He said “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Invention → Need ?

In a classic “chicken or the egg” scenario, Melvin Kranzberg argues the opposite is true, that “Invention is the mother of necessity.” This principle is the 2nd in Kranzberg’s famous six laws of technology, and means that after a new product has been used for awhile, the user begins to rely on it. The user begins to ‘need’ it.

This is a much less intuitive analysis of the relationship between humans and advancing technology, but if you think about it, it makes sense. While it might be said that inventions respond to a specific need, Kranzberg claimed “it was the original invention that mothered the necessity.” People typically didn’t have access to their emails at all times before the mass adoption of the smart phone, but now you probably wouldn’t even consider buying a phone without email capabilities.

And with every new product, there are many additional inventions to make the original product more effective. If you didn’t have your smartphone, you wouldn’t need your waterproof case, nor your extra long charger cable. We wouldn’t need bike locks if we didn’t have bikes, and so on.

In other words, technology raises our expectations for what we ‘need.’

So, this is the big contradiction of technological invention: inventions solve problems and therefore simplify our lives, but in doing so, the inventions create more needs we didn’t previously have and therefore complicate our lives further.

Funny how that works.