Northern Colorado Business Report
“A consumer’s guide to adoption of technology”
By Kai Staats
8 April 2011

As I walked out of the Miramont North gym this afternoon, I felt the warmth of the sun against the cool, crisp spring air. As I approached my car, however, the roar of gasoline powered hedge trimmers and leaf blowers filled the air. The foul stench of poorly combusted two-stroke engine pollution was unavoidable.

I was overwhelmed by the contrast, having just left the relative calm of yoga class and rock climbing to witness the rapid, noxious reduction of the budding greenery. It just didn’t feel right, that the tools and methods used in an attempt to create beauty were themselves not beautiful.

When I arrived home and prepared to write this column, I struggled between two topics: the sorry state of downloaded digital movies versus hi-definition home theater appliances, or a larger, more engaging, even risky introduction to the concept of appropriate application of technology and how it affects our functional intelligence as individuals and as a species.

The former would have been too simple to compose, easily summarized as The quality of Netflix sucks. Better to rent Blu-ray Disc.

The latter, however, is a return to my Sr. year Industrial Design thesis “Confused Vanity and the Mad Dog TV” written eighteen years ago. The three chapters “Down the Tube,” “Forced Obsolescence,” and “The Power Blower Wars” take the reader into a mindset beyond form follows function, calling upon my experience as a design student and consumer, and that of several profound, world-renowned designers and technology writers.
In review of my thesis (which was great fun to read again) I was pleased to rediscover a completely relevant five-point formula for product design written by Henry Dreyfuss in “Designing for People” (1955):

  1. Utility and Safety
  2. Maintenance
  3. Cost
  4. Sales and Appeal
  5. Appearance

In the same vein, Buckminster Fuller concluded, “You have to make up your mind either to make sense or to make money, if you want to be a designer.” (Operation Manual for Spaceship Earth, 1969) How many products on the market today follow this type of formula? Of equal importance, how many of us as consumers challenge the true value of a new product before we make our purchase?

I will for the next several columns engage you in a conversation around appropriate technology, consumer products comprised of software or hardware, and how they affect us as consumers. In particular, I will explore the categories of entertainment, communication, and transportation, leaving medical, military, and safety to another time and space.

For as much as I am an advocate of advances in technology when and where they assist us in finding greater personal health and satisfaction, understanding the world around us, and moving ourselves and our things from place to place, I am increasingly wary of technology which diminishes our individual creativity, self-awareness, ability to make decisions for ourselves, and functional, real-world intelligence.

I am concerned that Google’s Gmail search keeps us from invoking the cognitive function of organizing and managing the emails we create and receive, instead encouraging a mental clutter which spills over into our virtual and physical life. I believe GPS units keep us from visualizing our world in three dimensions, causing us instead to become reliant on technology and less capable of conducting the very basic act of navigating from point A to B. I am concerned that new model cars which automatically conduct parallel parking on our behalf are in fact reducing our motor skills and ability to problem solve in real-time. If we cannot organize, navigate, nor move through our world without assistance from computers, then what exactly are we able to do on our own?
I ask, “How many of our modern technology-based products are denying us the very functions our brain offers instead of encouraging dynamic improvement of our intelligence?”

While researchers discovered a half dozen years ago that the human brain does in fact grow new cells throughout our lives, SPECT imaging conducted by Dr. Daniel Amen (Change Your Brain, Change Your Life, 1999) has demonstrated time and again that exercising the brain improves cognitive abilities, even slowing or reversing the onset of mental disorders and disease, does it not stand to reason that not using our brain also reduces our cognitive capacity?

Calling upon the research I conducted at Arizona State, I find it refreshing to read again Langdon Miller’s words, “Through technological creation and many other ways as well, we make a world for each other to live in, much more than we have acknowledged in the past, we must admit our responsibility for what we are making.” (The Whale and the Reactor, 1986)

Responsibility begins with designers and ends with consumers.

In the coming months I will guide you, the intelligent consumer, through a thought process that may alter the way you look at the multitude of products you consider for purchase, even those which you already own.