Why I Write About Technology
Incalculable odds were against my arrival in this world happening in early 1994, positioning my life within a timeline that would allow me to bridge my two species’ most significant millenniums in the first grade as a student in the first class at Fairview Elementary school to receive curriculum-mandated exposure to brand-new Windows 98 PCs in its brand-new, fluorescent-lit computer lab in the center core of its 50-year-old rectangular brick structure. The lab also meant that ours was the first Fairview class to have the available relief of air conditioning during the school day. It’s unlikely that I would be home sick and watching the last television ever allowed in my mother’s living room as the second plane hit.
My peers and I would form a picogeneration without a name (perhaps we should be called the 9/11ers) — 91s and 92s wouldn’t have regular access to public school machines until they’d eclipsed the true prime of their development, and were just that much further along, mentally, to being able to comprehend the huge and terrifying concepts of 1) New York and 2) burning alive — while 98s like my niece were spared any such comprehension of death at all, yet now have to face the existentially future-sundering, darkly-mirrored reality of the Trump Presidency during the most critically uncertain period in the last stage of their brain’s transition to adulthood.
If there is truth in the cross-cultural supposition that souls have some sort of choice, pre-conception, over when they’re born, my own must have either cleaned out the house, or lost horrible, though I suspect I’ll never be able to confidently wager either way. This question of how lucky or unlucky am I to be alive right now is one which I find most fascinating — not just within myself, but within others my age. I declare us a generation largely because of my experiences on the assumption that my mid-Missouri upbringing represents the ultimate average in the American experiences of the time as the area has been a reliable sample of the clearest average of the country’s cultural, political, and economic life. Technically, it was quite unlikely that I arrive here as a new human being instead of China or India, and what if that, too was my choice?
Though less so, it was still against chance that I would be born to parents who would divorce very quickly after my birth, before my mind was able to form any tangible long-term memories, sparing me whatever pain could’ve resulted from their greater togetherness later nullified in front of me. I could’ve chosen them as well for the variety of experiences their situation would allow me as I grew up between my father’s 800-acre farm and my mother’s suburban house in Columbia, the college town an hour’s drive south. I write about my experiences now — so young — because I’ve likely already born witness to more extraordinary changes in human development than your parents, their parents, and their parents’ parents combined. At 24, my life has already spanned by far the most profound and expedited informational renaissance in human history — greater progress was made between the day I first rode a bicycle and the one on which I took my driver’s test than in thousands of years before it.
My father’s experiences between 1950 and 1974 — from his birth until the age I am now — would indeed include watching a man set foot on a spatial body other than Earth for the first time, but would be mostly defined by work on the family’s soybean, corn, and wheat farms in central Illinois, driving carbureted tractors pulling cultivating equipment of the same basic design and function as had been pulled by horses, mules, and oxen for hundreds of years, and other implements — like the mechanical multi-row planter — that were new technology at the beginning of the century. For neighbors, he would walk behind the path of a square hay baler next to a moving flatbed trailer upon which he would throw the 70–100 lb. rectangles of dead compacted grass by their twine through thick cowhide gloves. All of this I would get to experience in the next century on his farm, using the exact same equipment.
At home, he would watch NBC, ABC, and CBS on a CRT television, as I would for several years until wireless television was legally transitioned to digital statewide in the summer of 2009. As an adolescent, he would form a business with friends cleaning out old abandoned barns in exchange for the rights of ownership to anything they found inside, which led to his discovery of a hay-preserved 1929 Buick Sedan containing hand-written records of its every service. This car would change hands into his Uncle’s care as he went off to school in Champaign, married and farmed in Georgia, and eventually settled on the flat clay soil of the farm where I grew up right on the border between Audrain and Monroe counties, Missouri. I was about 10 when we drove back to the family hub with a trailer in tow to collect the car from my Great Uncle, to my manic excitement.
Up until my mid-teens, my life was defined by my extreme reverence for historic cars, airplanes, tractors, and watercraft, and the time I spent operating, maintaining, restoring, or simply studying the assortment of these which I was allowed — often because of extraordinary circumstances — would build the part of my psychology which seeks to experience different cultures, ideas, and eras through the medium of engineering and design and relies on these to understand them. Like my father in his youth, I would learn to clean water out of a carburetor after the Oliver had sat without running for two long, and I would pee in a chamber pot in order to avoid waking up my Grandfather by walking down the attic stairs and turning the lights on. I would learn how to shoot and drive before 10-years-old, and I would have the freedom to do both as I pleased on the miles of gravel roads that ran around home.
Though my stepfather bought me a PC of my own just as my first grade computer class was ending, I could not conceive of a reason to take up the dial-up line and block his incoming calls or faxes, so my use of the machine was limited to sparse writing and aggravating attempts to run Microsoft Flight Simulator 98 at approximately one frame per second on a 300MHz single-core Pentium II CPU. Though I was extremely fortunate compared to most middle-class kids my age at the time to have my own computer in my room, my relationship with it was not an emotional or particularly involved one. I would leave it powered down for weeks at a time until my last two grades at Fairview, when homework assignments began to require it.
Perhaps the greatest gap between my mostly-suburbanite classmates and I was an exposure to Japanese entertainment and video games. I was once disallowed from a lunch table because I’d never heard of Pokémon or Luigi, but I did have a Sony Playstation at home on which I occasionally loaded A Bug’s Life to wander around its first level. In self-imposed isolation from children my age, I wouldn’t develop any need to be socially competitive with video games as many of my peers would to carry with them into adulthood. I thought my interests in mechanical engineering to be above all of them, so I spent my time alone with heavy picturebooks on 20th century cars, tractors, and airplanes.
On the farm, my consistently agriculturally-proactive father was one of the first to have satellite internet for farm futures and weather reports on a pre-GUI machine which I don’t remember. As I was becoming computer literate in school, he would become extremely frustrated with the Windows XP-running machine he’d bought from a one-man, one-room computer shop in Centralia, and I would often solve some problem with bloatware or the goddamned printer. He would also subscribe to and install a first-generation DirectTV receiver, which had the first on-screen program guide I’d ever seen. In the evenings, I would watch hours of Modern Marvels on The History Channel, which presented the history, abstract functional theory, and implementation of a particular technology, both past and future. This one program — which has aired nearly 700 episodes since 1995 — is probably responsible for the majority of my at least rudimentary general knowledge in a variety of historic and “future” technological schools, and my curiosity about culture’s relationship with innovation.
Though my father’s interests differed significantly from mine — he thought more about growing and raising than of the tools one used to do it — he would indulge my many questions about how engines, hydraulics, and electrical systems worked and my curiosity by exposing me to the hidden communities of the most elderly, most obscure historic machinery enthusiasts like those of the Midwest Old Threshers Reunion in Mount Pleasant, Iowa — the Concours d’Elegance for antique tractor and reciprocating engine collectors. It was a similar event closer to home where I first operated a steam tractor — great, field-going locomotive-like vehicles that supplanted a need for horsepower in the late-1800s up until the Great Depression which chug, whistle, and puff along just like rail locomotives with a big iron steering wheel. As I recall, I was also given the opportunity to drive an unrestored Model T truck around the grounds that day — the knowledge from which I gained I cannot imagine being of much use ever again.
I was proud to the point of arrogance of my technical knowledge and experience in all the different things I had driven and operated, which my schoolmates were in no position to understand. I was elitist and anti-social about this as late as 9th grade, when I had just moved in to stay with my mother, who bought me a first generation iPhone which I proudly wore in a leather belt holster to Junior High. It would represent a shift in my fascination from very old technology toward the present and future.
I started talking online with a friend I’d first met years before at Fairview who spent most of his time fiddling with his first-generation MacBook Pro and first exposed me to gadget bloggers on YouTube like Mark Watson and Jon Rettinger (both of whom are still full-time tech personalities.) My mom bought me a 13-inch aluminum-bodied MacBook (which would be sold as MacBook Pro after a single year,) and my lifestyle radically shifted inside my room, my computer, and my Xbox 360. My friend and I would both obsess together over software, design, and gadgets and experiment with our own tech YouTube channels until high school, where I would be adopted by a new friend group who would finally socialize me.
Recently, I have written about the contrasts and discrepancies of consumer technology development as its progress has disconnected from the upward linear trajectory in use, quality, and genuine innovation for the enduser in a departure which has been especially visible from my perspective as an academically-untrained, but intensely demanding user in the past five years. When hardware was still the industry focus before ~2012, there was a tremendous amount of optimism among journalists and enthusiasts because each successive generation of devices had added more tangible capabilities. Publications like Gizmodo and Engadget made a fortune publishing reviews and comparison tests of hardware offerings across every segment of tech, and the discourse they generated had a noticeable influence on design. I remember this time well because it was happening throughout my last few years before adulthood when I had plenty of spare time, energy, and curiosity to keep up.
The story of consumer technology since Steve Jobs’ death has become increasingly more about the companies who design and sell hardware and software than about how and why their consumers actually use them, and the result has been a series of new types of products that have little defensible place in a linear timeline of innovation, especially where productivity is involved. Augmented and Virtual Reality are quite explicitly an escapist industry which has yet to fill any significant need which was before unfilled. The same could be argued about voice assistants and smartwatches — neither of which remove obstacles in most users’ day-to-day lives but instead contribute to the array of tasks and devices which already seek their attention.
Of course, there are defensibly sound business incentives behind the industry’s new, fragmented direction, but I would also argue that there are those, too, for genuinely revisiting both what we should be doing and what we should be seeking to learn to do with technology. In a more abstract sense, I have written about whether or not we should want to be living in this particular now, and how the way we feel about the future should inform what we do in the present.
I cannot help but observe human progress from a perspective of powerlessness, acute alienation, and amused awe which has already lent to a significant quantity of occasionally original thoughts as I watch having experienced an odd diversity of American life and culture. I’ve published them to entertain and to demonstrate a few methods of reflection on what it is you really want from the times you are living.