In his book Irresistible Adam Alter argues that much of modern technology, in particular smartphones and the programs they run, is designed to be as continuously engaging as possible. The devices are so intuitive that it’s easier to use them than it is to not use them; it takes a conscious effort to not look at the phone in your pocket every five minutes, and the banal information that dribbles across its screen in texts and e-mail and social media is larded with just enough mildly interesting items to make looking at it feel worthwhile, at least in the moment.
Ed and I have been building a freezer into the hops barn, the old bones of which harken back to an age and philosophy of decidedly rougher design. There isn’t a single square corner or plumb post in the whole thing, and trying to tightly fit a perfectly rectangular box into a space with an undulating floor and a deeply bowed ceiling is continuously frustrating. In a fundamental way engaging with this these technologies is the opposite of using a smartphone. You might say a shovel is the other pole of the technological spectrum, and in terms of simplicity it certainly is, but a good shovel at least does its job easily and well. I’m reasonably confident the freezer will be efficient and effective in its finished form, but no step of its construction has been seamless or intuitive.
My only significant critique of Irresistible is that it questions technology almost exclusively on utilitarian grounds. In other words, the approximately four hours per day an average person spends using a smartphone become a problem when they detract from the user’s sense of well being, social connections, and productivity. If there were further advances that mitigated these negative side effects for the majority of people, the main argument of the book would be rendered moot.
This is an issue for me because I want to think that there is a fundamentally human aspect to being frustrated, though I can’t quite say what it is. There are lots of old fashioned ways to frame this - that doing a difficult job BUILDS CHARACTER or TEACHES YOU HOW THE WORLD REALLY WORKS, but these don’t get at the heart of the matter. The fuzziness of my thoughts on this topic coupled with how true it nevertheless feels is uncomfortable to me, suggestive as it is of a knee jerk preference for the familiar over the new and a valuing of my chosen lifestyle over others.
On the other hand, I was in the freezer warehouse up in Utica the other day, and I saw a printed out quote from a minor television celebrity that basically said we’re collectively raising a generation of unmotivated wimps. I had an immediate, visceral, negative reaction to that, so maybe I haven’t yet completely retreated into a fortress of nostalgic self-satisfaction.