The Common Fallacy That Technology Can Replace Effort

Part of my daily Internet routine involves hopping on Craigslist.com and browsing the listings of all the Apple Macintosh-related items for sale or trade. It is definitely more out of habit and curiosity than of need, but it does afford me some interesting insights into the second-hand Mac market. I find that, in view of the overall number of Macs for sale, a disproportionately large number of them are being sold by the amateur creative types: the aspiring graphic designers, music producers, and videographers. Their typical listing includes a high-end MacBook or Mac Pro (computers in the $2500+ range) and usually some expensive software like Photoshop, Logic Pro, or Final Cut Pro. The system, deducing from the hardware specifications, is usually less than six months old - which begs the question, “Why are so many people dumping high-end systems so soon after purchase?” The answer, I think, can be found by considering the availability and raw power of such systems and software and their corresponding position as status symbols. People are trying to use powerful technology as a short-cut to avoid effort, and it doesn’t work.

Moore’s Law dictates that computer hardware capabilities double every 18 months, effectively rendering older technology obsolete rather quickly. In this extremely fast-paced technology environment, software has a heck of a time keeping up. More often than not in the rush to make new programs available for the newest system, developers aren’t able to fully harness the hardware’s capabilities. In addition to this rush, new system architecture sometimes requires programs to be re-written to prevent from being rendered obsolete. The result is that programs never become more usable per sé, rather they are sold as the same program as before with more features added in each new release.

Because of this feature creation-fest we have extremely powerful software that requires users to read thick volumes of literature in order to learn how to use it. A guide to Adobe Photoshop Elements (the really stripped-down version of normal Photoshop), for example, tops out at over 400 pages. Imagine the guide to the full Photoshop experience!

Amateur professionals simply do not have time to read 700+ page manuals or guide books to software that will be obsolete in 18 months. These days, to really know how to use a powerful piece of software, you have to either go to school and learn it or have a job that trains you in it. Preferably both.

Regardless, the software and hardware makers still tout their products to hobbyists as “powerful tools for the amateur professional” or some other equally catchy tag line. Just because a product is available, however, doesn’t mean that it is for everyone, as evidenced by the number of people who buy high-end Macs only to find out that learning Final Cut Pro takes a lot of time. They paid for their $5000 setup with a credit card, and now they have to offload it before the bills start to pile up on a piece of incredibly powerful technology that they cannot harness. My own PowerMac G4, for example, I bought from a guy in his late twenties who admitted that he “bought it for music production before [he] realized that [he] had no idea how to use Pro Tools.” Expensive technology, surprisingly, didn’t help him become a better musician.

Buying expensive tools does not make up for lack of talent or drive. Technology cannot solve those problems. If I aspire to be a professional photographer, buying a $1500 SLR camera might make my color look a little better or my pictures more in-focus, but it cannot improve my framing, lighting, or ability to be in the right spot at the right time to nab that action shot. If I don’t have the motivation and humility to take a bazillion pictures and study them relentlessly, owning a $1500 camera will only make me feel bad about having another expensive toy that I don’t use. I would probably sell it and use the money to buy something I actually need, like food.

We can see this over-reliance on technology in other media as well. The popular day-time T.V. show “The Doctors” recently aired an episode in which a panel of doctors fielded questions from the audience related to sexual performance and other topics of that nature. It was billed as a kind of “we’ll answer those questions that you are to embarrassed to ask your partner” type of episode. Really, society at large? Really?

Never mind actually communicating with your partner. Never mind having an open channel in which you can broach such topics as these. No, please take those questions and ask them in front of a TV audience, because that makes for good entertainment. You will get your answer, thanks to the technology of daytime T.V., and your partner will be none the wiser!

If you still don’t think this is a problem, consider the 12/15/08 Dear Abby column.

DEAR ABBY: My adult daughter, "Marsha," lives at home and will walk in and start a conversation or tell me something while I'm watching the news or some other show I'm interested in. Marsha never seems to arrive during commercials, which I'd gladly skip.

If I don't stop what I'm doing and pay full attention to her, she becomes offended. I feel she is interrupting. Who's right?

DEAR JAMES: You are. However, a compromise might be to invest in a digital video recorder. That way you can "pause" whatever you're watching and return to it when interrupted.

Talking this issue through with his daughter is apparently too much to ask. Buying a TiVo is an easy solution, and hey!, it only costs some money. Apparently if you throw enough money at a problem or use technology creatively, it will go away? I wish that were true.

The truth is that investing effort in something is usually the only way to make it truly valuable. This is the same whether you’re talking about relationships, social problems, or even making a good movie or record album. Technology can be a great tool in helping you such things, but when reliance on technology becomes thought of as a shortcut to success, the result can only be disappointment.

Allow me to wrap up with a personal story. When I was in 9th grade, I discovered file sharing networks. This was during the "golden age" of file sharing before it was all deemed a legal threat. Immediately I was granted access to a huge library of “free” powerful software applications used by professional studios all over the world. My cable modem spent untold hours as my faithful slave, bringing me Adobe Photoshop 6, 3D Studio Max, FruityLoops, and AutoCAD, among others. I eagerly installed them, but then I hit a wall. What was I going to do with them? I wasn’t particularly creative, either artistically or musically. I had no interest in industrial design or 3D rendering. Professionals used this software because it allowed them to do what they loved to do - they used it out of necessity. I was a 15 year-old kid who wanted to say he had experience with expensive software applications. I fiddled around with the programs for a bit, but then when I found out that they were incredibly complicated, I lost interest. I had no time to read thick books. I had no real drive to learn Photoshop. I just liked it because I could put weird warping effects on peoples’ faces. I used maybe 1% of the total features available to me.

I currently use Photoshop 5.5 and Illustrator 9 on my PowerMac G4, mainly to produce the three-panel comics that I post on this site. These are old versions, but I don’t care. I use Photoshop for resizing, adjusting color, and very light editing. Version 5.5 helps me accomplish that. I chose Photoshop over free editing programs like GIMP because, though GIMP may be advanced, it would require me to learn a new user interface. I don’t want to do that. Learning Photoshop for my Yearbook class took me long enough as it did, and if I have to settle for a cheap, outdated copy of Photoshop because of my refusal to re-learn a new program, so be it. At least I know how to use it for what I want it to do, which I think is certainly more than can be said for the guy trying to pawn off his quad-core Mac Pro on Craigslist.


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The Explanation of "1+1=田 "

I suppose it is high time I explained the former header of this website. The title is just one of many elements that reinforce the an overarching theme of things not being as they initially appear - not as they seem on the surface. As a missionary kid, I often feel that people I meet label me for their own convenience. It is there way of interpreting me - by sticking me in a neat “third-culture kid” box. I feel that this is a gross oversimplification, and in doing so actively work to defy such labels. I work to stay unclassifiable, and an innocent, seemingly nonsensical equation, 1+1=田, exemplifies this in a multicultural context.

At first glance the equation just looks like a simple first-grade math problem with a Japanese kanji character tacked on the end. This problem, though, not only makes sense to every Japanese elementary schoolchild, but it also makes them laugh. The equation, once explained, is trivially simple and is a practical joke that is played on any unsuspecting first-grade classmate. All it really is is just smashing the 1+1 together and then splitting the equals sign so it rests above and below it, resulting in the Japanese character for rice paddy, read “ta”. This character, easily identified because it actually looks like a real rice paddy, is one of the very first kanji that Japanese children learn in school. In practice, the riddle looks something like this:

“What’s 1+1?” one child will ask another.
“Two,” the second dutifully replies.
“Wrong!” the riddler gleefully announces, “It’s actually 田!”

The victim is left to solemnly ponder his stupidity and newfound knowledge. Should the victim already be wise to the “田” answer, the riddler can still outsmart him or her my claiming that the correct answer is found by smashing the two numbers together, or 11. In extreme cases, the riddler resorts to using the “correct” answer, two, as the right response to the riddle. This results in much laughter and spreading of rumors among the class that Little Jimmy doesn’t even know that 1+1=2. How stupid is HE!?

Yes, kids can be cruel, but by the second semester any joker still stupid enough to pop the question is met with a scornful look and a bored, rapid-fire answer of “2, 11, or 田.” Something simple becomes annoyingly complex.

Growing up in Japan as a white, blond, foreigner, I was the subject of many such pranks, and usually the last one in the class to catch on to the tricks and gimmicks going around. Allow me to give another example.

The game of rock-paper-scissors is universally accepted by the Japanese kids as the de facto way to settle disputes. Since most elementary school disputes involve people not getting what they want, in order for one to get what they want it is essential to master the psychological aspect behind the game. Jan-ken, as it is called in Japanese, is used in everything from playground games to serious rug-rat judicial processes.

When it is played as a game is when the kids are free to be the most creative with it. Normal jan-ken involves three hand positions - fist, palm, or two fingers out. This gets boring rather quickly when played repetitively, causing the initiator of the match to use some creative juices to turn a simple game into a complex question-and-answer exercise. Consider the following:

Kid 1: “Hey, let’s jan-ken.
Kid 2: “Ok.”
Kid 1: “Jan, ken, poi!”

This is standard procedure, equal to the American “rock, paper, scissors, shoot!”

Kid 1: ”I win! Let’s play again.”
Kid 2: ”Ok. No prisoners this time!”
Kid 3: "Go for broke!"
Kid 1: “Jan, ken, how-many-hairs-do-you-have-on-your-head?” (said in Japanese, of course)

Kid 2, in a grievous effort, has extended a closed fist.

Kid 1 and 3: “Haha! You’re saying you have no hair! What are you, BALD? Baldy baldy baldy ha-ha-haha-ha!”

Kid 2 walks away, sullenly, dejected.

The appropriate response in this situation would have been to vigorously shake both hands and have your fingers simulate a considerable amount of hair. A display of an open palm, paper, would also be acceptable, but only barely. In this way, school-kids keep adding questions that require specialized hand gesture to answer. This can lead to some amusing but incredibly demoralizing mistakes, such as when one gives the hair-on-the-head response to the newly conceived how-many-porno-mags-do-you-own question. This might indeed be the playground jungle at its cruelest.

All that to say that not everything is a s simple as it appears to be - not everything can fit neatly into a box. To extend that personally, not every missionary kid grew up in an alien land ignorant of cable T.V. or pogs. “1+1= 田” goes to show that every person is much more complicated then first impressions make them out to be. Not only might they not be normal, but they might even defy your “normal” expectations of someone radically different. Just because I grew up in a different culture doesn’t mean that I will look normal through everyone’s kid-raised-in-Japan lens. I can recognize this about myself, and I hope to make it a lifelong ambition to recognize it in others as well.