By Dan Moren
May 31, 2016 12:46 PM PT
The Back Page: Pop the clutch
Technology has a strange tension to it. On the one hand, I—and most people—really, really like it when it “just works.” When our webpages load promptly, when our Netflix doesn’t buffer, when our devices behave the way we want them to without making us feel like we want to bang our head against a brick wall.
At the same time, I—like so many of the other people in this community of ours—delight in experimenting with technology. Trying to learn and understand it, to push it further, to bend it to our will, all in the pursuit of that indefinable, fist-pumping moment when you’ve managed to accomplish something, well, if not new, then at least new to you.
Like any accomplishment, that road is fraught with obstacles and potential perils. Most of the time you have to break something in order to get it to work the way you want it to. The acme of technological experimentation is sitting on a floor with pieces of a computer strewn around you, or sunk deep into a bevy of command-line configuration files.
I’ve spent the last week or so setting up a new remote server to host my website, installing software, configuring services, and troubleshooting the inevitable glitches as they arose. Even beyond that, I found in several instances that my solutions to problems were essentially hacky end-runs around the legitimate methods for accomplishing the same task—so I undid all my hard-fought work and did it a second time, the right way.
Despite all the time I sank into those technological dead-ends, I wouldn’t take any of it back. If nothing else, it was fun. Even when something didn’t work the way I expected, or an entire system seemed to blow up in my face. Because I knew that no matter how much I broke it, there was always a way to fix it.
Contrast that to so many of the technologies we use today. When autocorrect or Siri fail to do something, we all too often want to hurl our iPhone across the room. So many of these systems and technologies are black boxes where input goes to become output, and there’s no way to know what technology indistinguishable from magic goes on in between. Those command-line configuration files were arcane, no doubt about it, but they weren’t opaque.
But I can understand that maybe most people don’t have quite the same fondness for mucking about in the command-line that I do. Fair enough: I drive a stick shift, which too is the domain of a rapidly decreasing minority—though I’ll bet you serious dollars that those will disappear (at least in the U.S.) before the command-line does.
In the end, we gain a lot when technology becomes simpler, not least of which is making it accessible to way more people, instead of just to those who invest the time in learning all the ins and outs of systems. But we lose something too: that esoteric knowledge and the satisfaction of getting our hands dirty and figuring out what exactly makes these things tick.
[Dan reminds you that writing is done entirely via the command line, sort of. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org and at dmoren.com. Column photo by Mary Gordon.]
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at email@example.com. The latest novel in his Galactic Cold War series of sci-fi space adventures, The Nova Incident, is available now.]