Funny You Should Say That! Technically Speaking
The ology of all ologies!
By John Cadley
In high school I was asked to define the word “zoology” in a vocabulary quiz. I answered that it was the study of zoos. The next day I got my test back. The teacher had marked it wrong and written neatly in the margin: “And I suppose cartology is the study of carts.” That’s when I first suspected that not only would my academic years be a struggle, but that I would have particular trouble with anything ending in “—ology.” I was right. Biology, geology, zoology (animal biology; who knew?) For any teacher trying to explain these concepts to me, it was, as Woody Allen puts it, like serving tennis balls into the ocean.
So you can imagine how I feel about technology. For me, this is the ology of all ologies. The dictionary defines it thusly:
technology n. 1. the branch of knowledge that deals with industrial arts, applied science, engineering, etc. 2. the terminology of an art, science, etc.; technical nomenclature. 3. a technological process, invention, method, or the like. 4. the sum of the ways in which a social group provides itself with the material objects of its civilization. [< Gk technología, systematic treatment. See TECHNO— , —LOGY.]
My definition is different:
technology n. 1. the branch of knowledge of which you have no knowledge. 2. the terminology created to ensure that you will never have knowledge of that branch of knowledge. 3. a technological process, invention or method, the successful operation of which requires the exact knowledge you do not have and can never learn. 4. the sum of the ways in which one social group – geeks – gets its revenge on another social group – the rest of us – for making fun of them in high school.
[< Gk technología, systemic ignorance. See DUMBO— , —LOGY.]
Most of the technology I encounter comes with “Operating Instructions,” written in a nondescript pamphlet that says failure to read the contents may result in my death. Electrical shock appears to be the most likely cause, although once you get up into power tools the possibilities are so endlessly gruesome it just says “serious injury” and leaves the rest to your imagination.
The assumption, of course, is that you will understand what you read in the contents. I honestly believe that at the end of all the safety instructions they should add one more: “If you do not understand these instructions, you are not intelligent enough to operate this product. Please return it to the store and buy something that you can operate. Like a yo-yo.”
The writers of these booklets illustrate their meaning by including schematics. It’s their way of saying, “Here, let me draw you a picture.” I followed a schematic once to assemble a tricycle for my son and proceeded to construct what can only be described as a wheelbarrow with antlers. My son cried. I cried, too. I don’t like schematics.
I know I’m not alone. It’s become a cultural cliché: the hapless consumer who can’t program his TiVo, the soccer mom who has to ask her 7-year-old to load up her iPod. Everybody thinks it’s funny. Look at me! I’m being humiliated by an inanimate object. Ha, ha, ha! And look – I have an “error 52 that resulted in system failure and wiped out all my tax records.” Isn’t that a riot! Wait, wait – there’s more. My car dashboard just told me to “check engine.” Why – so I can FIX it?! Stop, you’re killin’ me!
I’m not laughing. Are you? Oh, you are. Well, I’m not. I don’t think it’s funny that my entire life depends on a “branch of knowledge” that sways in the breeze miles above my head. The only possible good I can see comes from a sort of paradox: Modern technology is blamed for alienating human beings by enclosing us in our own little worlds of home movies, cell phones, listening devices and personal digital assistants. And yet when these things break down they do the opposite – i.e., force us out of our electronic cocoons into direct interaction with all manner of fellow creatures we would never otherwise embrace – namely, the people who can fix them: auto mechanics, cable guys, even technical support specialists in India who make you feel like Gandhi is fixing your computer.
I’ve dealt with all of these people and have found them to be quite friendly and willing to help. In fact, when the guy came to install my new HDTV, he said that once I mastered the remote, he’d teach me about something called the Internet.
John Cadley is an advertising copywriter in Syracuse, New York. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.