The other day, I heard a song on the radio that sounded interesting, but I didn’t recognize the band. So I tapped a few buttons on my cellphone, held it up to the speakers, and about 90 seconds later had the song title and band name.
Depending on how tech-savvy you are, your reaction to this statement will probably fall into one of three categories:
1. Blase disdain. As in, “So what?” This category includes everyone younger than 25, and the people who stand in line when a new iPhone comes out.
2. Cheerful agreement. As in, “Yeah, I have an app like that, too. Isn’t it cool?” This includes a vast swath of humanity for whom smartphones have become ubiquitous, but they are not quite yet inured to their charm.
3. Mystification, disbelief or confusion, with possible mutterings about witchcraft and sorcery. This includes people who don’t know what an “app” is, and those who angrily remind everyone who will listen that they “don’t have the Internet.”
The thing is, even though I am having a total love affair with my smartphone and definitely know what apps are, I tend to fall more into the third category. I may know how to use technology; I just don’t actually understand it.
A few years ago, Ryan North, the author of the online comic strip Dinosaur Comics, came out with a poster and T-shirt to help out people like me.
North wrote, “Many times I have complained to those near to me that if I were sent back in time I would be pretty useless. I am pretty handy with a computer, but it’s not like I can build something functional from scratch. ... With that in mind, I have been researching all of the low-hanging fruit of civilization: stuff that doesn’t take that much to describe once it’s invented, but still produces a useful payoff. The basics of electricity. Radio. Modern medicine. That sort of thing!”
I didn’t buy one of his products, but I probably should. Because I am just as useless as North.
I realize that, due to the same sorcery that enabled me to find out what song was playing on my radio, I can look this type of information up pretty easily. If I type “television” into Google, and click on The Site That Dare Not Speak Its Name (i.e., Wikipedia), I can read a pretty serviceable description of how television signals are transmitted and received. And while I’m reading it, it makes sense.
But ask me to explain it to you five minutes later, and I’m probably going to falter. The fact that we can transmit signals complex enough to convey vivid, moving images — especially of live events — seems to me to be nothing short of sorcery. And this is technology that’s nearly 100 years old.
So the fact that my cellphone can somehow “listen” to a song and accurately identify it is totally baffling to me. I am pretty sure the “how” has something to do with algorithms. But, let’s be honest, I don’t totally understand what that means, either.
I like to think that most of the people around me are just as ignorant as I am about how all this stuff works. But my private fear is that everyone else completely understands the internal combustion engine, and fiber optics, and I’m just a total idiot.
For many years, this has not troubled me too deeply. After all, I have other good qualities. I am pretty good at spelling, and I can draw. I can cook a few things well, and I know how to drive stick.
The thing is, now I’m a parent. And while my drawing, spelling and cooking abilities will get me far, I worry that my daughter is nearing the age when she will rely on her parents to explain life, the universe, and everything to her, repeatedly and constantly.
It’s a good thing my husband understands how TV works, and is good at explaining things. But there is a part of me that feels like I’ve failed the female race by not having a better understanding of scientific concepts.
So I may spend some time boning up on some of these fundamental concepts, so that I’m better equipped to answer those inevitable “Why is the sky blue?” questions. But I have a feeling that the answer is often going to be, “Go ask your father.”
So it goes. At least, when the time comes, I can teach her how to drive stick.
EMILY F. POPEK is assistant editor of The Daily Star.