Mastering Our Tools

Tim Wu, writing for the New Yorker online, argues that technology can make our lives too easy, presenting the danger that "as a species we may become like unchallenged schoolchildren, sullen and perpetually dissatisfied." The piece feels a bit fear-mongering to me. But I love this:

Anecdotally, when people describe what matters to them, second only to human relationships is usually the mastery of some demanding tool. Playing the guitar, fishing, golfing, rock-climbing, sculpting, and painting all demand mastery of stubborn tools that often fail to do what we want. Perhaps the key to these and other demanding technologies is that they constantly require new learning. The brain is stimulated and forced to change.

With this point, Wu actually undermines his entire premise. Part of being human is enjoying the experience of learning, whether that's learning to play guitar, play a video game, write poetry or write code. When I got my first iPod, I became obsessed with smart playlists. When my wife got her first iPhone, she immediately became obsessed with photography apps. When my children recently started playing the video game Minecraft, they quickly began looking up YouTube videos about how to build different kinds of portals so that they could travel to different dimensions and worlds within that imaginary world.

Rather than snuffing out our desire to learn, technology can actually cultivate that desire by continually giving us new tools to manipulate and master. As I wrote in the very first post on this blog:

No other field (thanks to Moore's Law) is accelerating at quite the same pace towards new possibilities of excellence. Software in particular, unbound by the limits of the physical world, is providing tools that allow us to make things that are more perfect, more precise, more useful, more beautiful. In many ways, technology itself is the both the means and the ends of striving towards excellence.