The graph of awesomeness

I don’t mean it’s a graph that is awesome, I mean that it measures awesomeness. Every new technology probably goes through this.


I: This idea is so cool! Let’s invent it and make the world better!

II: Oh crap, there are problems we didn’t anticipate. They didn’t show up until lots of people started using this thing.

III: But there are ways around the problems! People are discovering ways to fix them, and there are fewer problems being encountered as this goes on.

IV: Aah, smooth sailing. It’s not as perfect as the original idea, and there’s still room for improvement, but reality rarely meets the ideal anyways.

The trick is to decide whether it’s worth it to keep using the technology and working through the problems. With some inventions, the low spots are relatively shallow and easy to get over. Early consumer-level digital cameras were energy hogs, gobbling up batteries like there was no tomorrow. I remember having to carry two sets of batteries if I wanted to take my first digital camera out for a full day of photography. But the users coped by using rechargeable batteries, and the camera manufacturers designed more energy-efficient cameras, and digital cameras are still around. Maybe if people hadn’t felt that digital cameras were so much more convenient than film, and if so many hadn’t been interested in easy ways of sharing pictures via computer, it would have died out.

In other cases the low spots can be really, really low, and the consequences of the problems are dire. In an ideal world, nuclear fission power could be pretty clean and safe compared to some other sources of energy. But in practice we have to have places to store radioactive waste until it’s not radioactive anymore (which, for some common byproducts, can be longer than the human race has already been in existence!), and a power plant that isn’t properly maintained is dangerous to people who work there and live nearby, and can result in environmental catastrophe. If we kept using it and improving the technology, would it get safer? Probably. Is it worth it to keep trying? A lot of people don’t think so.

Sometimes the problems in the lows have more to do with regulation and responsibility than with intrinsic features of the technology itself. When people first started driving powered vehicles on roads, there was a high accident rate; since then, measures like safety belts and laws against driving while intoxicated have saved many lives. Tasers are less lethal than guns in that having one used on you is less likely to result in death; but there are questions about whether cops are using tasers in situations where guns would not have been justified, possibly increasing the likelihood that a suspect could die during apprehension.

Post your suggestions of technologies that are commonplace, easy and safe today, but that had some interesting or serious low spots when they were new. Also, what are today’s new and problematic technologies that have the potential to be much smoother in the future?


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