Icarus flew too close to the sun, his wax wings melting because he used them too ambitiously. Dr. Frankenstein created a monster that destroyed his loved ones. In reality, just as in myth, technology is often used with hubris, or is hubris itself; and tech gadget marketing especially so. We are forever trapped in the retro-future, a regressive imaging of the progressive, a desire to have something that others do not, a gateway to an expanded reality. We want it first and we want it shiny and, often, we want it to give us some power over our environment that we did not have before.
These truths inspire product developers and advertisers to chase all kinds of rabbits and dive down all kinds of holes in an effort to create the next big—and importantly, the next revolutionary—technology. As the authors of the following articles describe, these goals are not without their problems, and sometimes those mishaps are the result of tech being deployed before its time. Other times, technology malfunctions in ironic ways. And, finally, sometimes its users make bad choices.
One example of tech being deployed before it should is wearable gadgets. “Several other devices had to crash and burn so modern wearables could flourish,” writes Victoria Song at Gizmodo. Song also points out the very interesting retrotech fact that Chinese tech geeks in the 1700s could wear abicusess. Song’s article chronicles the Seiko T001, a watch with a TV like in Dick Tracey, “revolutionary” at the time but burdened with a terrible picture and a “walkman-sized receiver” the wearer had to carry around to make the watch work—truly an example of a technology before its time, if by “its time” we mean a tech innovation lacking a larger tech infrastructure for support.
What about tech going wrong in almost-poetically ironic ways? Just a couple of weeks ago, Yoni Hesler reported that a much-celebrated voltage tester was recalled by the U.S. Product Safety Commission because of the risk of electrocution associated with its use. Being attacked by voltage while using a voltage tester is the very kind of irony science fiction writers love.
Then we have human foibles. This article details two instances of such stumbles in the development or deployment of military technology. The first scenario is a kind of Babel-like parable: try to make something too big and you’ll pay. Shortly before the Japanese Empire invaded Pearl Harbor, its Navy built the largest battleship ever built and equipped it with “cannons that could fire 18-inch shells over 26 miles and 9×450 mm guns” — ending up with a monstrosity displacing 63,000 tons of water, creating “a four foot high tidal wave, flooding the riverbank homes of Nagasaki” and capsizing hundreds of ships in the surrounding harbor. “Frightened citizens rushed into the streets as water poured through their doors, completely bewildered by the source of the flooding.”
But the vanity trope is even more interesting than the Babel trope. The true fumble of our epoch occurred in 2010 when two pilots from “Helicopter Maritime Strike Squadron 41” were flying their copters over Lake Tahoe and one of them nose-dived into the water because the pilots were trying to take Facebook selfies. In many ways, this sad anecdote evokes the myth of Icarus.
In fact, we’ve seen many examples of people getting seriously hurt and even dying while trying to get selfies on high buildings and cliffsides, in front of wild animals or tidal waves, on the edges of waterfalls or roaring fires. But oftentimes, it’s easy to dismiss those events—they happen to civilians (untrained yahoos) rather than highly trained pilots or crack soldiers. Part of the technological mythos is the cult of expertise, and there’s a virtue assumed about the well-trained that the helicopter story savagely deconstructs.
All of which suggests that the problem of tech hubris could also be called by its good old-fashioned wry characterization “operator error,” but perhaps with the prefix “egregious.”