“Anything that was in the world when you were born,” Douglas Adams wrote, “is normal and natural. Anything invented between when you were 15 and 35 is new and revolutionary and exciting, and you’ll probably get a career in it. Anything invented after you’re 35 is against the natural order of things.” We don’t know what’s against the natural order of things, but we do have a term for historically anomalous tech. From a historical paradigm, “out-of-place-artifacts” refer to old objects that “seem to show a level of technological advancement incongruous with the times in which they were made.” This includes things like caves in China that contain what appear to be 150,000 year-old water pipes; a hammer found in a eons-old rock formation; and what appears to be a spark plug encased in a geode, dated half-a-million years old.
But these are historical, or pre-historical anomalies popular with students of the abnormal. Out-of-place technology also might refer to contemporary items that seem to serve no useful purpose, or serve such a miraculously useful purpose that we wonder why the tech sector waited so long to create them. Every year, a few publications run with the “weirdest tech” of the previous year. The results are stimulating. For the list of 2017’s strangest and most exotic tech, Glenn McDonald of InfoWorld listed robots that weighed over 300 pounds and were capable of doing perfect backflips (no useful purpose) and miniature nuclear reactors capable of powering cities.
Sometimes the weirdness comes from anomalous performance or phenomena, almost always unintentional, that cause concern for how an item is used or received. So in Stuart Turton’s “strangest ever tech stories,” we find Dell Laptops (the Latitude 360 to be precise) that smelled like pee, Syrian hackers overwhelming the BBC Weather Twitter feed to make fat people jokes, and the allegation that Google’s Street View car killed a donkey.
Other items that serve no useful purpose are those that are incredibly expensive, available only to the top .1 percent, and steeped in decadence: a remote-controlled pink Leg Air Massager women can “wear” under a desk, or a robotic dog that will roll over, beg for you to pat them on the head, and do other tricks, all for the amazing price of over $2800.
These excesses of technology might tell us why noted Luddite Edward Abbey once wrote: “High technology has done us one great service: It has retaught us the delight of performing simple and primordial tasks—chopping wood, building a fire, drawing water from a spring.” So in that sense, maybe the price is worth it.