When Technologies Turn Invisible They Get Interesting

Image by Thomas McSparron from Pixabay

You just dial those numbers and, if by some miracle, it doesn’t go to voice mail, you chat with the person on the other end. We all use a telephone today. We love it. We despise it. We don’t even think about it. The phone is just there, part of that computer in our pocket, which we’re also thinking about less and less. The telephone is an example of a technology that became invisible. And that’s when things start to get more interesting. Why?

When I say a technology is invisible, it means that it has been so deeply absorbed into our culture and social systems that we just use it without thinking about it. We essentially take it for granted. It also means that we have figured out the social norms of using that technology and the role it plays in our cultures. The phone is a truly global technology that pretty much the entire population is using in some way.

A farm tractor is another. If you’re a crop farmer, you just have a tractor. What you may deliberate on is the type and what functions that tractor needs to perform. Tractors are invisible and were largely boring. Until they weren’t. I say were boring because the game changed when manufacturers like John Deere and Case made them interesting again.

John Deere went very high tech. So much so that they embedded chips in the engine, like cars and trucks and built some code that would become a significant legal issue for them. John Deere, looking to protect their own interests and that of their dealers, made it so that only authorized, accredited John Deere mechanics could work on them when things broke. Farmers didn’t take kindly to this. They tend to want to fix a lot of their equipment themselves. They have to be resourceful.

One Australian hacker even broke into tractor software to enable it to play the game Doom. Oh deere. So now farmers can play Doom when they’re bored. Humour aside, the hacker did this to show how poor John Deere’s security is for its software products. Farmers have had a long-running legal battle with John Deere for the right to fix their equipment themselves. Now, John Deere has so many lawsuits it’s trying to consolidate them. This is how an invisible technology becomes interesting.

Another boring technology that’s become interesting is luggage. It is a technology, just not a digital one. It has become a topic of conversation because people started putting Apple Air Tags in their luggage to track it as so much has been getting lost as we return to travel.

Invisible technologies become interesting when we use a new technology to make the boring one do new things. Often in unexpected ways. Sometimes good (Air Tags in luggage) sometimes bad (stopping farmers from fixing their tractors.)

They become interesting again because new markets are created, generating new value to a technology that had peaked and become invisible. And because the new tweak impacts our sociocultural systems in new ways, perhaps putting new pressures on systems that those who ran them, thought were perfectly fine. John Deere’s tactic of turning a tractor into a piece of digital equipment upended an industry and the system that farmers liked. Farming is a subculture, one that most of the population doesn’t think about.

Eventually, the internet too, will become invisible. That may be several decades out. Right now, the internet and the many digital technologies it enables, is disrupting global sociocultural systems in ways that we’re still trying to figure out. It is as significant a technology revolution as agriculture was around 12,000 years ago. Agriculture took thousands of years to evolve, with many cultures trying it and rejecting it before it became invisible. The internet is moving much faster, disrupting faster and impacting sociocultural systems much, much faster.

Sometimes, as technologies become invisible, they lead to revolutions and conflict. As the telephone became more common-place, it enabled faster communication of ideas and better organisation of social groups. That helped enable World War 2 and various revolutions around the world. Social media has helped marginalized segments of society to organize against governments. Like the Arab Spring and the Freedom Convoy in Canada and the 6 January riots in America that attempted an actual coup.

For businesses and entrepreneurs, if you can find an invisible technology and find a way to evolve it with new digital technologies, opportunities can be significant. Just don’t be a John Deere unless you can afford the law suits. Internet-of-Things (IoT) technologies will make a lot of invisible technologies interesting again. Beyond being able to change the colours of your lightbulbs and turn the furnace on. That’s not interesting, is evolutionary.

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Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

Giles Crouch | Digital Anthropologist

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Digital / Cultural Anthropologist | Featured in Wired, National Geographic & Forbes | Celt | Explorer | Intensely Curious