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One of my abiding memories from living and working in Switzerland was the time I spent with makers of luxury watches. The craft and the skill that goes into them is breathtaking, and the near obsession with “complications” - the aspects of the watch that showcase the maker’s skill - is fascinating.
These technological complications, from tiny moving figures to aspects of the moon, do not add anything to the watch's functionality but add massively to the cost and the implied status of the wearer who can afford it. They are tiny works of art.
On the other hand, time is perhaps one of the earliest open-source technologies. The movement of the sun has always indicated the passing of time (except maybe here in Derbyshire today). The Greeks in the Agora would time meetings by the time it took for the length of their shadows to change. Church clocks were a social good. None of them had unnecessary complications.
Technology is like that. It seems to have a will of its own, and to find its way into our lives, even when it fulfills little real purpose:
“The advance of technology is based on making it fit in so that you don’t really even notice it, so it’s part of everyday life.”
The trouble with not noticing it is that human capabilities and instincts it replaces atrophy, and increment by increment, we become dependent on what we used to be able to do for ourselves.
I love technology, but am increasingly respectful of its power. Technology does not make us helpless, it is our willingness to let it that does.
Libby Larsen, the composer, noted that “the great myth of our times is that technology is communication.” That thought resonates when I look at LinkedIn, find Otter.ai as a presence on a Zoom call, or someone calling in with a bad mobile connection.
Communication is perhaps the most fundamental of human capabilities. It determines our relationships, the meaning we attribute to our lives, and the world we hand over to those who follow.
The more we complicate it, the poorer it becomes.
The lesson of the last three years is that we don’t need many people, complicated technology, huge networks or artificial intelligence to communicate. We just need to take time in small groups and talk about what is on our minds. And when that is clear, we can introduce the technology we need to make the connections we want in order to do what’s important.
“Ah—that’s the beauty of higher education, sergeant. Never use two simple words when one really complicated one will do.”
― Caroline Graham, Written In Blood
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