"The glory of God is man fully alive, and the life of man is the vision of God." -St Irenaeus of Lyon

In search of… a do-everything device

I’ve really grown partial to my GPS unit in my car, but sometimes I find myself wishing it had more features. The last gadget I had affixed to my front windshield was a radar detector, which admittedly has some merits when you drive as much as I do. In some of my weaker moments, I wonder what it would be like if my GPS unit had a radar detector… or some way to check my email… or that I could figure out how to work its internal mp3 player…

And then I thought about the electronics culture behind the “genius” of the iPad… even just saying that name makes me a little sad. Increasingly it seems to be about having a device that can do it all. I hate to say it, but we approach electronics for a novelty effect rather than any sort of real need. “Let me get this new fangled gadget to see what it can do.” The price of first generation devices marks them as a status symbol showing who can manage to procure a new device.

I will be among the first to say that I do not get an electronics culture driven by applications. Some of the applications for the iPhone truly boggle my mind… there’s a first aid application, a music finding application, a Magic: the Gathering application, and a myriad of applications to help someone prepare for standardized tests.

And then I get frustrated about our love affair with the latest and greatest only to read articles like this one from yesterday’s New York Times entitled “Where a Cellphone is Still Cutting Edge” I see electronic devices that make it possible for people to gain access to banking services, crop information, and community centers… using text messaging instead of an incredibly large application.

It seems that the article has a sense of what plagues much of my musings on the subjects around engineering, electronics, and the American economy when it asks:

But is desire replacing need as the mother of American inventions? Will domestic demand for ever sleeker, faster, fancier devices make it harder for Americans to innovate for the vaster, less opulent world outside, still dominated by frugal wants?

I do not see the challenge as an issue of increasing market share; for me, the balance hangs in the direction of recovering our humanity. When we label all of our wants as needs, we’re certain to find ourselves in a spiral towards obsession. But the crux of the issue seems to require some embrace of simplicity… and dare I say simplicity to the point of minimalism? While minimalism might become a new legalism in its own right, I think the central framework of re-evaluating our priorities makes a lot of sense.

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