The Romance of Dumb Technology

by F.

I’m not sure anyone else will relate to this, but from time to time I’ve come across what I would call a Romance with Dumb Technology. For instance, I remember back in the DOS days when folks would be proud that they’d mastered this completely stupid, ignorant-ass, unintuitive OS. I remember having a conversation with my “boss” when I was a Vista volunteer in Portland, Oregon. He was telling me how cool DOS was. He had these huge books in his office, full of all the commands he needed to look up when he wanted to do something like, say, open a file. I was duped by it, too. I thought, “Wow, this guy is really smart.” He disdained his coworkers who hadn’t mastered the DOS arcana.

Which I think is the explanation—or part of it: signaling. You master the dumb technology, which requires a large amount of effort, then you tell everyone how you mastered it, signaling that you are smart (or whatever). The other part of the explanation is probably loss aversion: after you’ve put in those 1,000 yours to memorize all those stupid commands, you’ll be unlikely to admit that all that time was wasted. So you advocate for your choice: “DOS is awesome—you mean you don’t understand it?” And there are plenty of other examples—like Lisp. Someone masters LISP and then realizes that it really isn’t that useful. But, goddammit, they’ve learned Lisp and so they’ll be damned if they’ll throw all that time away. So, which is easier: (a) try to convince everyone else that Lisp is cool, or (b) master a new language? Exactly.

But isn’t the history of technological progress sort of the history of overcoming loss aversion? Of forgetting about the horse drawn buggy when the car comes along? Of forgetting about the adding machine when the electronic computer arrives? Folks that get stuck with dumb technology are a little like cranks. They’re smart enough to be right but unfortunately don’t have the facts on their side. Which is another way of saying that being smart is never enough. The path of technological history is littered with the carcasses of wrong geniuses and lined with statues of right idiots.

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