FutureWire - futurism and emerging technology

Tuesday, April 19, 2005

"Disappearing" Technology

An interesting piece from The Economist, originally printed in October: The hallmark of a truly successful technology is that it simplifies and "disappears" into the environment, so that we are barely aware of it most times.

The article notes that clocks, sewing machines and phonographs were originally complex high-tech devices requiring volumonous user manuals and lots of patience. It also reminds us that, in the early days of electrification, large businesses had "VPs of Electricity."

Initially, the article states, technologies are hard to use because they are "created by nerds" who worry about getting the features right rather than making an elegant solution. Only later do those with an aesthetic eye approach the problems of usability. That, combined with the growth of supporting infrastructures, allows technologies to "disappear" from view even as they become more complex behind the scenes.

For instance, the earliest cars were not for the faint of heart. They required both physical stamina and a wealth of mechanical knowledge. But eventually, cars became simpler to drive, aided by both technical improvements and the growth of highways, service stations and other things to make drivers' lives easier.