4 min read

What’s technology for?

How often do we actually ask that question? Very rarely, I’d wager. So many minutes and web pages are dedicated to discussing ‘disruption’ and ‘innovation’ that it’s easy to lose sight of what we’re trying to achieve as tech professionals. Yes, we always want things to be ‘better’, but what exactly does that mean?

Usually ‘better’ means ‘faster’ or ‘more efficient.’ Again, I’d ask the same question – why do we want things to be faster? And, ok, it sounds stupid, but why might we want things to be more efficient?

These sort of questions are perhaps facetious, but they highlight just how easy it is to lose sight of what makes tech fun, inspiring and exciting. Indeed, it’s useful to note that a lot of the innovations and trends we see across the tech world – from microservices to web components to data lakes, are driven by the relentless hand of capital. It’s all about speed and scale; being able to manage bigger deployments, more users, larger sets of data, without losing performance and without requiring more resources – human or otherwise.

But let’s move away from that for a moment. It’s only when we start to innovate by what we in Britain like to call ‘mucking about’ that we can start to rethink exactly what technology is for. True, it might well be the case that technology isn’t really for anything, but isn’t that remarkable enough? Because once we recognise that the tools and technologies that define our everyday lives – both leisure and work – don’t have to be the way they are and used the way they are, it’s then that we can begin to rediscover, reinvent what we might do.

It’s against a world where just about all technological advancement fits into a Daft Punk schema of ‘harder, better, faster, stronger’ that a movement towards play and creation has started to develop. Maker culture is perhaps the most obvious demonstration of this, where the emphasis is on the relationship between inventive technologies and the crushing reality of meatspace. 3D printing and robotics take their place alongside more traditional forms of craft, as a new kind of innovation – rooted in exploration, rather than acceleration, takes hold.

Go to a ‘FabLab’, one the community workshops that have come to define modern maker culture and ‘digital fabrication’, and you’ll see this exploration in practice. Here you’ll be able to access a huge range of tools, from 3D printers and laser cutters to sewing machines. In a FabLab you can build whatever you want – you can learn from others and share ideas, maybe even materials and tools if you’re nice. Innovation here isn’t driven by changing business demands and market pressures – it’s all about creativity.

But it’s not just about Maker Culture – the DIY ethos is catching on to the mainstream. Just look at the huge popularity of Raspberry Pi and other microboards. The very fact that the Raspberry Pi bridges the gap between adults and children says a lot about how we might characterise it – it is at once a ‘toy’ but also a tool. We don’t have to decide which one it is – what’s great is that it’s both at the same time. This means that it’s something we can play with. We can use it to try out new ideas, experiment with different projects – it’s only once you go through that process of play and invention that you can begin to unlock true innovation. This isn’t an innovation that responds to the demands of the marketplace, but instead an innovation that is motivated by curiosity and the sheer joy of experimentation.

It’s a little corny, but a good way to think about the value of Maker Culture and creative hardware like Raspberry Pi is by recalling John Keating’s words in Dead Poet’s Society. “We don’t read and write poetry because it’s cute… we read and write poetry because we’re members of the human race” he says. What does this mean? Essentially, it means that we write poetry ‘just because’. We do it simply because we want to. Playing with your Raspberry Pi is like writing poetry – you do it simply because you want to. And how often can we say that about technology? Yes, we’re curious and we want to learn new things, but this curiosity is nevertheless informed by our careers, business strategies – whatever lingers over you as you spend your day working.

It’s only when you step back and start to ‘play’ that the tech world takes on a new complexion that is filled with possibility and new routes of innovation. So why not make time to do just that?

Don’t forget to download and read our Year in Review, to revisit the last 12 months in the tech world and find out what’s set to be important for 2016.

Co-editor of the Packt Hub. Interested in politics, tech culture, and how software and business are changing each other.


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