The Real Technology Lesson at Aspen

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Apple mobile products saturated The Aspen Ideas Festival this week. iPhone 4s and iPads were as ubiquitous as white pants. But try to make a phone call or connect through AT&T's 3G network on the iPad and no matter how many bars you had on your phone, real service was rare. Text messages got sent or received hours after they were intended; the bad phone service became like the traffic in Los Angeles - an all-purpose excuse for tardiness or miscommunication.

At times, the impossibility of making a phone returned Aspen to a time before cell phones. Not that it was a trying experience, but the little inconveniences that we thought cell phones had eliminated returned. After half a dozen failed attempts to connect with Braddock mayor John Fetterman, I marched to his hotel and called up to his room. When's the last time you did that?

If I can be permitted one last big thought from last week's Aspen Ideas Festival, I think our personal digital difficulties, which are rampant in big and small towns alike, are actually meaningful. On the one hand, Strauss Zelnick, CEO of Zelnick Media, told me he had no doubts that bandwidth would soon be ubiquitous and as fast as you wanted it. And on the other, there I was trying to send each text message for 30 minutes, twisting the phone this way and that, pointing it towards windows, eventually holding it above my head like a flag of surrender.

I began to wonder if the rest of the Aspen attendees were learning an important lesson about what we call technological progress: the way our stuff gets better is not in some ever-advancing wave proceeding towards ever higher degrees of perfection. These are human systems and they don't work perfectly immediately. Alongside the steady march of increasing processing speed and decreasing cost per unit of computing power or storage, other tech changes are jagged and unpredictable. Who would have thought it would be harder to make a mobile phone call in Aspen (or San Francisco) in 2010 than it was in 2006?

There is a more positive lesson in iPhone failure, too: there are always technological alternatives. If your cell phone fails, you can send a Twitter direct message over WiFi, or plug a computer in via Ethernet and send an email, or find a landline. The system is not as brittle as it might seem, and any individual technology is not as important as it might appear. 

People sometimes talk about accepting or rejecting technology, but that misstates the kind of choices we have. It's technology all the way down, and there are always options. It's only by making choices between technologies or adapting them -- understanding the behavioral, economic, environmental, and social tradeoffs specific to any object -- that we shape what stuff gets produced and used. 

There's a lot more that you could read about this sort of issue, but if you want a good start, there's a great older book called The Social Shaping of Technology: How the Refrigerator Got Its Hum.

Image: Obviously, do not call 911 if your phone isn't working, even if you feel like it's an emergency. Credit: Alexis Madrigal.
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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science website in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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