The Trouble with Technology

We like to say that we live in an era of progress and innovation. The devices in our pockets have offered us new ways to communicate, make beautiful things and connect with people.

I love technology (but not as much as you, you see). I spend most of my day behind one kind of screen or another, and through these screens have found a limitless playground for creativity, connection and learning. But the resulting noise, clutter and headaches sometimes leave me wondering whether all of our advances have actually made the world better.

Technology is often seen as a persistent, insatiable beast with a will of its own that must be resisted. We talk about limiting “screen time”, or the need for getting “unplugged” because we realize that the technology we love also has its drawbacks.

There are days where I envy the minimalists, with their flip flops and green tea, who have rejected the trappings of modern culture for a simpler, more zen-like existence. For most of us, cutting the cord and walking off into the woods isn’t a realistic option, but it holds a certain appeal.

Into this struggle between the benefits and trappings of technology, I’ve found a lot of inspiration from a book written in the 1970s, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Robert Pirsig. Written before the birth of internet-connected technology, it provides great perspective for our relationship with today’s technology.

Here are some of my takeaways from the book.

1. Technology is not inherently evil.

At the outset of the book, Pirsig identifies the “romantic” view of technology, which tries to keep its hands clean of the nuts and bolts of how machines work, as caricatured by his riding partners who prefer to leave the maintenance of their own bikes to the “professionals”. At the core of this belief is that – not unlike the gnostic beliefs of the first century that folks like the Apostle John were addressing – there is an inherent evil within technology itself, and purity comes with keeping it at arms length.

With wrench firmly in grease-covered hand, Pirsig goes into depth to show that technology has no inherent goodness or badness. Any evil lies, in fact, not in the materials and moving parts of a motorcycle or any other machine, but in the maker of the machine.

The real ugliness lies in the relationship between the people who produce the technology and the things they produce, which results in a similar relationship between the people who use the technology and the things they use.

2. Quality goes deeper than style.

Any parent knows the difference between “stylish” toys and quality ones. The cheap plastic trinkets that lure kids to vending machines and Kinder eggs offer 5 minutes of joy, then are tossed. But there are other toys (Lego, anyone?) that can offer years of joy for kids and their children.

Pirsig’s passionate stripping of the popular trend in modern technology that he calls “style”, resonated deeply with me.

The result [of inattention to Quality] is rather typical of modern technology, an overall dullness of appearance so depressing that it must be overlaid with a veneer of “style” to make it acceptable. And that, to anyone who is sensitive to romantic Quality, just makes it all the worse. Now it’s not just depressingly dull, it’s also phony. Put the two together and you get a pretty accurate basic description of modern American technology: stylized cars and stylized outboard motors and stylized typewriters and stylized clothes. Stylized refrigerators filled with stylized food in stylized kitchens in stylized homes. Plastic stylized toys for stylized children, who at Christmas and birthdays are in style with their stylish parents. You have to be awfully stylish yourself not to get sick of it once in a while. It’s the style that gets you; technological ugliness syruped over with romantic phoniness in an effort to produce beauty and profit by people who, though stylish, don’t know where to start because no one has ever told them there’s such a thing as Quality in this world and it’s real, not style. Quality isn’t something you lay on top of subjects and objects like tinsel on a Christmas tree. Real Quality must be the source of the subjects and objects, the cone from which the tree must start.

Working in advertising has taught me that no amount of Photoshopping can fix a bad message (as might as we might try). And no clever ad campaign can replace poor service or cheap products.

Even lipstick won’t keep the proverbial pig from stinking.

Along this vein, Jason Fried and DHH recommend that we make products that are “at-home good”. Once the shiny packaging has been ripped off and the new-car scent faded, does it still work as well as it did on day 1 (or better)? This is the quality that Pirsig is trying to unravel.

Steve Jobs was famously obsessive, not just about the outer look of Mac products, but the insides as well. While he might have gone too far at times – making sure that even the inner surfaces of their computers had the same glossy finish as the outside, for instance – I think Jobs had an intuitive understanding of quality. Quality can’t be created with some paint and polish, it must start inside.

3. Technology is a reflection of its makers.

Something like maintaining a motorcycle is a humble, quiet craft that requires patience, attention to detail, and even – Pirsig would suggest – perfection.

You want to know how to paint a perfect painting? It’s easy. Make yourself perfect and then just paint naturally. That’s the way all the experts do it. The making of a painting or the fixing of a motorcycle isn’t separate from the rest of your existence. If you’re a sloppy thinker the six days of the week you aren’t working on your machine, what trap avoidances, what gimmicks, can make you all of a sudden sharp on the seventh? It all goes together.

Tiffany Shlain says that the internet is like a teenager, and we are its parents (). The challenge of parenting is that children are better at doing what they see their parents doing, rather than what we tell them to do. What if technology is similar? What if it exposes its makers, not for who they want to be, but for who they are?

The real challenge that Pirsig extends to makers of technology, which I found personally inspiring, is to let their craft shape them into better humans.

The real cycle you’re working on is a cycle called yourself. The machine that appears to be “out there” and the person that appears to be “in here” are not two separate things. They grow toward Quality or they fall away from Quality together.

Let technology make you better

Spend your time in silence. Unplug when you can. But also take the challenge offered by Prisig. Learn how technology works, wrestle with the nuts and bolts and code, and let that struggle make you a better human.

The place to improve the world is first in one’s own heart and head and hands, and then word outward from there. Other people can talk about how to expand the destiny of mankind. I just want to talk about how to fix a motorcycle. I think that what I have to say has more lasting value.