Thursday, June 26, 2008

On Gadgets

Let's consider the human brain as a computer, for a moment. There are three primary factors in a computer's performance: the bandwidth capacity (information coming from the external world, and the internal pathways), the processor capacity (how many tasks at each moment, and how fast it can finish each task), and the storage capacity, how much information can our brains usefully store.

The processing capacity of the human brain has not followed Moore's law. The processing speed of a human brain has not significantly improved in the recorded history.

The storage capacity of the human brain has also not significantly altered.

Similarly, the bandwidth capacity has also remained about the same.

But the information to process, and the number of tasks to be performed, and the number of things to remember have grown exponentially in the modern world. There is more and more data to process, and to store every day. And it is clogging the neural pipes, filling up the memory cells and stressing the processor.

We are more exposed to more information than ever before: There are hundreds and thousands of TV and radio channels, there are millions of books in print and available online and easily accessible (you can get them instantly via, e.g., the Amazon Kindle technology), we see thousands of advertisements every day, internet has opened up vast reservoirs of constantly updated information, there are hundreds of items in most urbanites' ToDo lists. There are unfinished books, half-listened songs, half-played games, undigested information, and so on.

Since the processing power has remained the same, while the information, task and storage load has increased, there is a lot of stress and a complete lack of "idle cycles". To augment our internal computing platform, we are constantly on the lookout for peripheral computers which can take some of the load away. These peripheral computers are what I call gadgets.

Every gadget dazzles you in the beginning but after being used for a while, leaves you somewhat unsatisfied. It helps somewhat, it takes some of the load away, but it also introduces overheads for its own maintenance (think anti-virus, think firmware upgrades, think repairs), and better gadgets arrive on the market every other day.

If you are a performance and efficiency fanatic, you will never be efficient enough in the modern world, because a new tool to make you even more efficient would have just arrived on the shelves.

The use of gadgets to have more leisure is self-defeating. Despite your best intentions, the more and better gadgets you have, the lesser will be the amount of leisure you will have.

This is not paradoxical, but quite logical.

Gadgets enable you to do business and "entertain" yourself no matter where you are. The problem they solve is not you having less leisure, the problem they solve is you not being able to do what you want when you want it.

Since gadgets enable you to do almost everything anywhere, and they enable you to process the information faster and more efficiently, they therefore take away your leisure. Why?

I think that this conundrum of power and efficiency versus leisure is extremely important in the modern age. People are chasing power, thinking that ultimately they will be powerful enough to have leisure, people are chasing efficiency, thinking that ultimately the efficiency will guarantee idle time, people are chasing optimization, thinking that ceaseless optimization will make them carefree. And tools for optimizing and increasing your efficiency are seemingly all over the place, and increasing in number, the chase is never-ending.

It doesn't work like that.

It doesn't, because the incoming information load is not letting up, it is actually becoming faster and heavier. The more you process, the more you still have to process. You can have leisure only if you cut the information cords, if you remain content with the fact that you will miss out on the new new things but you will enjoy more what you have.

Optimization and efficiency would work only if there was a finite amount of information to process, and a fixed number of tasks to be performed in a fixed amount of time. People ignore the frenetically accelerating dynamic of today's life when they start chasing efficiency with better and better gadgets.

One sees youngsters lost in themselves wearing iPod headsets in buses and trains (and complaining that 20GB storage isn't enough), kids playing cellphone games while waiting in a queue (and complaining that their cellphones are too slow), adults flipping TV channels and watching two programs at once using the Picture in Picture technology (and complaining that a particular channel doesn't offer HD resolution), and almost nobody saying that they have powerful enough computers.


The ever-increasing load of unprocessed information (which one thinks might contain that knock of destiny and fulfillment somewhere) leads one to feel as if one is missing out by just not being able to process information better, or by not being able to store it better for later processing.

Hence, more gadgets. Hence, more storage. Hence, more anxiety.

And the more worked-up we are at the surface level, the less is our quality of output, the less the refinement of our thoughts, the slower the evolution of our fundamental basis.

And with technophiles, a gadget becomes a fascination in itself. Their ends and means are both gadgets. They revel not in what the gadgets can do for them, but in what the gadgets can do, period. So too with people who regard gadgets as status symbols. If you ask someone proud of his new phone, he will describe all the new features, the increased resolution of the camera, the increased storage for the songs, the better connectivity the phone has, etc. But if you ask him whether the phone has improved his quality of life, he will look at you as if you haven't understood the features yet.

(When I was pursuing my engineering degree, I reveled in just installing new compilers on the latest servers. And I used the latest compilers to compile new tools, editors and so on. Being on the cutting edge, having the latest tools was what was important. I had no clue as to how the tools could be best used. Only many years later I realized that a second-best tool used productively is infinitely better than a latest tool just sitting idle and shiny. I am now fine with writing and working on a last-generation computer, using emacs text mode as my editor.).

The quality of life is not about band-width, it is about band-depth.

The depth (and hence the quality) of your engagement in life can only become better if you invest not in power and efficiency, but in filtering out, having fewer (but more creative) things to do, having less (but more tangibly useful) information to process, having less (but more often used) possessions to store and maintain. Dis-engage, retreat, cut-off your high-bandwidth inbound cords for a few hours every day, for a few days every month, for a few weeks every year.

For the sake of whatever is important in your life, SLOW DOWN.

6 comments:

Rambler said...

New technologies do enable you to do anything anywhere, but I think people haven't fully accustomed themselves to handling this freedom. A lot of people think that because you can now do anything anywhere, there is never an excuse not to do it. For many people, when the (mobile) phone rings or an email comes in while they're relaxing for a moment, there is no excuse to not pick up or read it. After all, they are doing 'nothing'. Of course there's also the element of curiosity (or anxiety) involved). Many people do not appreciate leisure time as useful time and subsequently do not take it seriously.

Having the freedom to do anything anywhere means also having more freedom to choose when NOT to do something for reasons that are sometimes not acceptable to third parties. We become scared to miss something, or to be held responsible for being unreachable when we were taking some private time, vital to us, unimportant for the one trying to reach us.

This is especially prevalent, I think, in the world of corporate business, where people are expected to work 12 to 16 hour days or more -no excuses- if they want to beat the competition (their colleagues) to get that promotion and more $$$.

The company needs them to work so hard to beat their competition, increase their market-share and create more value for the shareholders. After all, they own the company and want some return on their investment.

In order to increase their market-share, companies have to resort to all kinds of persuasion techniques to get the consumer to buy their goods, and not the competition's. The most succesful persuasion technique of course is the illusion of status. Because with status comes credibility and hence power. We all want power.

This is why we buy the newest gadgets with the functions: We communicate to the world that we are ahead, we know what the best is and -even better- we can afford it.

In comes credit. How could anybody (especially in the States) afford anything if they couldn't buy it with money they really don't have? So credit card companies target students and tell them to spend spend spend, no charge! Until they graduate and find themselves not only in debt for an obnoxiously expensive education (which they have no choice but to pay for), but also for that 'cheap' credit card that they used to pay for spring break, a car, fuel, parties, books and what not. What to do?

Work for that big corporate business, because they're the only ones that pay enough to even stand a remote chance of ever getting out of debt. If you work hard enough and beat you colleagues that is...

In this vicious circle, who would dare to slow down?

Arun Kumar said...

slowing down will have its consequences, it may mean slowing down in the world where we are living and at the same time looking at others going up up and above... the meterealistic growth demands speed which is one of the reason why people use these gadgets for.

so slowing down may mean accepting less money, lower quality of life, accepting others going higher with no regret which is difficult.

Rambler said...

I agree with mr. Kumar that slowing down means making a choice for less material prosperity. But you only make that choice if you think that your quality of life improves. Quality of life from that point of view is seen as an immaterial thing, or a balance between material and immaterial.

The problem with Western society, with America as its most extreme proponent is that it is almost impossible to make a choice for less material prosperity, because it means being in debt up to your armpits. People are pushed into a materialistic lifestyle out of fear for bad credit and debts. They no longer feel they have a choice.

harmanjit said...

Material prosperity becomes self-defeating as an end in itself. It is to enable us to live in comfort to follow our ends. It is a means.

Maybe young people need to be instructed on the danger of getting embroiled in the viciousness of market forces, but as adults, we can choose to at least cut out the information overload, and spend our time doing useful and creative things rather than become slaves to gadgets and "amuse ourselves to death".

Arun Kumar said...

I agree with a part of your artical and dont agree with another part. I agree that cutting the unnecesarry information cords will give ease to people because they will have less information to process, however, whether or not to use a gadget or the latest version of gadgets doesn't have a direct relation with one's happiness so it can't be generalized for everybody. e.g. a user who knows only about 1% of the features of a new gadget but is enjoying it will have some happiness added to his life because of the gadget. Such moments of happiness counts no matter by which mean they come from. For a highly conscious person the happiness may come from inner exploration, for an average person the happiness may come from worldly pleasures and for a dumb happiness may come just by possessing a gadget. You may think of a person whose love of life is to collect more and more such gadgets itself.

Harmanjit Singh said...

A great article of aphorisms on the internet:

http://www.edge.org/documents/archive/edge313.html