I’d been stuck in near-stationary traffic for over an hour. But that was OK; it was the peak of the summer holidays, and I had mentally prepared myself for this. What was definitely not OK was the fact that my SatNav was telling me ‘No traffic reported ahead‘. How could this stupid machine not know that there was a mile of cars going nowhere ahead of me? What is the point of ‘real time’ updates that are wrong? Why had I wasted good money on this ridiculous piece of junk?
Once I’d finished ranting about this to my supremely uninterested family, I realised I had neatly illustrated one of the most common challenges engineers face. A few years ago, GPS technology was the stuff of James Bond. The idea that anyone could buy a small, relatively cheap device that could pinpoint your near real-time location to within a few metres while travelling at speed would have been laughable. But GPS, in common with so many extraordinary engineering developments, has rapidly moved from the extraordinary to the everyday. There is initial sense of wonder (‘Wow, that’s amazing! It knows exactly where the turning is!’), which quickly decays as the technology is absorbed into the everyday (‘Keys, wallet, phone, SatNav, OK, we can go now’) to end up as something you only notice when it fails to perform perfectly (as illustrated at the start of this post).
Humans seem to have an extraordinary ability to push amazing technological leaps forward into the background of our lives very quickly. We don’t seem to have the ability to remain in awe of our achievements for very long (and this is rather graphically summed up by comedian Louis C.K. in this video). This is not a new thing. Roman’s moaned about their roads; Victorian’s quickly learned to whinge about the railways (and the fares). Marcel Proust commented about how rapidly the telephone went from being: “[..] a supernatural instrument before whose miracle we used to stand amazed, and which we now employ without giving it a thought, to summon our tailor or order an ice-cream.” And look how quickly space travel went from jaw-droppingly amazing, whose launches and missions were frequently broadcast globally on TV in the 1960s to something only to be of widespread interest when there was a problem. We seem to be able to continuously appreciate great art and music, so why can’t we be as appreciative of technological achievements?
But is this inability to be continuously impressed by technological achievements a bad thing? Much of human progress is driven by people being dissatisfied with how things are. Engineers and entrepreneurs thrive on this dissatisfaction to find ways to improve things. What would have happened if Karl Benz had thought that steam trains and horse-drawn carriages were adequate for our transport needs? What if Joseph Swan and Thomas Edison had been sufficiently impressed by gas lighting not to bother with developing the incandescent light bulb? Think of how contemporary engineers and entrepreneurs such as James Dyson, Mandy Haberman and Jonathan Ive have looked at current technology, and pushed things forward to deliver to us something much better (be it vacuum cleaners and hand driers, a child’s drinking cup, or consumer electronics and computers).
Maybe if we were constantly impressed by everything we had, there would be less incentive for engineers to strive to improve things. So perhaps next time you are ranting about slow video download speeds on your smartphone as you hurtle across the country by train, moaning about your flight to the other side of the world being a few minutes late, or giving the SatNav a hard time for not being perfect, you might reflect that you may be doing exactly what is needed to encourage engineers to keep pushing the boundaries of technology to make things better.