2019: A World on the Margins


Enabling Technologies

Guiding Questions

    • Make two lists.
      • First, list ten technologies you use every day before school starts. These technologies can be gadgets—such as toasters and foldable Samsung phones—or larger works of infrastructure, such as the pipes that bring hot water to your shower.
      • Second, list ten technologies that make you better at things, from calculators to running shoes.
    • Now, consider the lists you have made and ask yourself the following questions about the technologies you listed.
      • Which ones depend on other technologies? A fitness tracker might be less useful without access to GPS, but a watch could keep time on its own—at least, until its battery runs out.
      • How do they work? Arthur C. Clarke once wrote that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic”—but, in some ways, so is any insufficiently understood technology. Take some time to consider technologies you may have taken for granted. Is a quartz crystal vibrating on your wrist 32,768 times per second? Is a heated ceramic plate breaking the hydrogen bonds in your hair—on purpose? Most technologies require energy; if yours do, where does that energy come from?
      • How different would your life be without each of the technologies on your list? Your answer and your teammates’ may vary. Someone with diabetes may struggle without a blood sugar monitor, whereas even without access to a rowing machine the captain of the rowing team might still be able to row on a nearby lake.
      • Where did they come from, and how long ago? Your parents may have used calculators in school, but their parents probably kept slide rules in their desks.
      • How widespread is access to them? Some enabling technologies are far from life-or-death yet make a daily difference in your routines and experiences. Are there people who would want to use hair dryers to dry their hair quickly, but are forced to wait for time and sunlight to take their course? Are there those who would benefit from prosthetics but must make do without anything to replace their missing limbs? Are there schools where children might be able to study more effectively if they had access to air conditioning—or electricity?
    • As you explore this subject area, ask yourself: is there a difference between an enabling technology and a technology of convenience? And, where do we cross the line from empowerment to dependency?

Empowering Technologies

    • Some technologies require no power source, but many, if not most, do. In general, the more portable a technology, the more likely it is to use a battery—although there are exceptions, such as some vacuum cleaners, which must be plugged in wherever you want to use them.
    • With your team, conduct some basic research into the science of batteries. How do they work? What makes a rechargeable battery different than a standard battery?
    • Be sure to consider key terms such as:
      • anode | cathode | electrolyte | capacity | discharge
    • How does wireless charging work? Discuss with your team: is there anything to fear from wireless power?
    • Speaking of fear: not long ago, the batteries in certain phones gained notoriety for spontaneously exploding. A few years earlier, MacBooks were blowing up. Why do batteries explode? Is it ever safe to depend on a technology that can sometimes be dangerous?
    • Explore the future of batteries, then discuss with your team: how would better power sources affect our everyday lives? Would they mostly just make our phones last longer between charges, or would they have impacts on access to technology for, say, underprivileged populations?
    • Many technological prognosticators have forecast an “Internet of Things”—in which everything around us is connected to the Internet, from the clothing we wear to the chairs on which we sit. Yet these devices would probably require batteries. Consider this potential battery technology, which uses freeze-dried bacteria. Discuss with your team: is it acceptable to use living creatures to generate electricity, or is this a form of exploitation? Would it be different if the bacteria were horses, or tardigrades? Does the calculation change if the creatures are dead?
    • Not all devices use batteries. Some are autonomously powered, through sunlight and other means, and others we still plug in to the electric grid (a.k.a. mains electricity) through outlets in our walls. But not all plugs are the same. Explore with our team: why does a “British” plug look different than a “European” plug—where did these differences originate, and does it mean the electricity behind them is different, too? Be sure to learn the difference between alternating and direct current, and between adapters and converters.
    • Sometimes large groups of people behave in predictable ways; we all laugh when an alpaca falls off a surfboard. But we may be moving into a Bandersnatch era in which technologies enable a more fragmented social experience—and the consequences may even include changes in how we consume electricity. Discuss with your team: should we find ways to use technology to spread out different kinds of social burdens, from when people commute to work to when they eat their meals?

Home is Where the Smart Is

    • Companies such as Amazon and Google are competing to develop (and sell products for) the “smart home”—but the truth is that homes have been getting “smarter” for generations, and more comfortable for even longer than that. Discuss with your team: is there a limit to how smart and comfortable we should want our homes to be?
    • Consider the temperature control technologies that enable many of us to live even in climates that may be outside our comfort zones. How do homes stay warm when it is cold out? How do they get cold when it is hot out? Explore how indoor heating and air conditioning work. Is it worse for the environment when we warm a cold place or when we cool a warm one? Discuss with your team: to save resources, should governments regulate how much people can control the climate in their private spaces?
    • Some homes are found in areas with significant pollution. Here, people who can afford it may rely on air purifiers to try to breathe cleaner air indoors, whether at home, at school, or even in hotels and other public spaces. What are the different ways in which these filters work? If you found yourself in Beijing on a smoggy day in June, would you rather have an ionizing filter or one based on activated carbon? Discuss with your team: will increasing access to indoor air purification cause people of means to disregard increasing pollution outdoors? Should rich people be forced to breathe the same air as poor people?
    • Consider this argument that air conditioning created the modern city. Pay special attention to the idea that air-conditioned cities separate those who can afford to inhabit air-conditioned spaces from those left on the inhospitable street. Discuss with your team: is inequality of comfort an issue for governments to resolve? To what degree does access to enabling technology lead to a loop in which those who lack access are less able to gain it?
    • Of course, there is more to a home than being able to wear sweatpants and a t-shirt in your living room. There is also the need (or, for some, preference) to keep it clean and orderly. From washing machines to the FoldiMate, inventors have sought ways to lighten the load of housework. Look into the following devices and consider them in the context of the emerging field of home automation, or domotics. Be sure to consider not just how they function but their impact:
      • vacuum cleaners | dishwashers | washing machines | home robots
    • Sometimes, you want to eat something delicious: maybe a seafood dinner, maybe eggs for breakfast. You could order (it is hard to ever say no to Foodpanda) but, if you choose to cook, you’ll discover that enabling technologies are all over the modern kitchen. Explore how the following devices work, and discuss with your team: do they have drawbacks? Does the rise of such devices make it harder for people without them to cope—and does it impact typical household roles and employment opportunities?
      • microwave | toaster | convection oven | rice cooker | coffee maker | juicer
      • pressure cooker | magnetic stove
    • Consider the technologies of personal grooming: hair dryers and straighteners, shavers, waxing, cosmetics, even toothbrushes. When were they invented, and how have they changed over time? Discuss with your team: is a device still an enabling technology if it helps us accomplish that helps us achieve an aesthetic goal but does not technically make us more “able”?

Dirty Jobs | Technologies of Marginal Occupations

    • We often glorify high-profile technologies and those who develop them—but we spend less time considering the less glamorous technologies and those who need to work with them. For every computer programmer, there is an electrician who makes it possible to plug that computer into a wall. Discuss with your team: what are some of the technologies we think the least about but rely upon the most?
    • For instance, consider waste disposal and treatment. Every time you walk out of a bathroom, you leave something behind. Where does it go, and where does the water you use come from? Explore with your team: how does plumbing work, and what are some of the latest innovations in the industry? Be sure to spend some time looking into the world of high-tech toilets, trenchless sewers, and even paper towel dispensers, including new models in China that use facial recognition to limit how much you take. But also consider how the legacy of older technologies can still affect us today—in this case, leaving millions of Moscow residents without running hot water every summer.
    • Sometimes bugs and vermin invade our homes and workplaces, from Argentine ants to weasels and rats. Is there a way to build a wall to keep them out? Consider the pest control industry and the technologies that enable it. Discuss with your team: do we unfairly criticize traditional chemical pesticides for their impact on human health, or do they create an artificial world order centered on unhealthy and unsustainable food production?
    • You are probably reading this outline on a device built on an assembly line. Consider the technologies that make mass production possible, from stainless steel to the conveyer belt. In the context of industry, what is a “prime mover”? Discuss with your team: do newer technologies make manufacturing jobs less “dirty” but also less valued? Or does modern society’s interest in manufactured products mean we respect those who manufacture them more than ever?

Ennobling Technologies

    • We have come a long way from Captain Hook. Take some time to consider each of the following “assistive” technologies and how it functions, whether by bending light or by limiting range of motion. Which has been around the longest, and which are evolving the most quickly?
      • prosthetics | hearing aids | walkers | wheelchairs (including racing wheelchairs)
      • speech recognition | eyeglasses | sign language to speech conversion
      • adaptive eating devices
    • Look at the origins of the “optophone” in the early 1900s—an optical character recognition technology that could “sound out” letters and numbers for the blind. If a similar device were developed for music, would it be more useful for entertainment or for education? What new applications might devices of this kind make possible?
    • Consider technologies that allow us to track and improve our own health—from fitness bands and glucose monitors to stationary bicycles. Discuss with your team: is it possible for these health-enabling technologies to be too helpful—and, if so, in what ways?
    • Enabling technologies do more than help people overcome physical impediments; they can also address social and resource limitations. Could 3D printing improve the living conditions of people without adequate access to housing in their communities, or does it face obstacles that this article overlooks? Could we one day unpack portable classrooms from our car trunks? Discuss with your team: what other applications can you imagine for 3D printing that might help those in need? Be sure to look at its use to create prosthetic limbs and even more comfortable helmets.
    • Sometimes we choose ways in which to limit our own lifestyles, out of concern for health, religion, or the environment; sometimes those choices are made for us. Either way, a person might want something that would ordinarily be uncomfortable or out of bounds. A vegan might crave a burger; a left-handed person might benefit from a mouse in tune with their intuition. Explore the science and design of vegan meat substitutes and of “left-handed” products, then discuss with your team: should technology allow people to bypass limits that they choose for themselves? Why would it be controversial whether genetic engineering could produce kosher pork? Should the government mandate that left-handed products cost the same as their right-handed counterparts?

Enabling Transactionologies

    • If there ain’t no such thing as a free lunch, it might as well be easy to pay for. Recent years have seen the rise of new technologies for buying things—and for merchants to keep track of what they are selling. Consider technologies that “smooth out” financial transactions. How contactless credit cards work—or Apple Pay? In some parts of the world, people even pay for things with QR codes. Where is this practice most common, and why? Be sure to explore how each of the following works:
      • near field communication | payment terminals | captchas
      • EFTPOS | QR codes | chip and pin | magstripe | contactless payments
    • Some argue that lack of access to the technologies of the modern financial system are one obstacle to people finding their way out of poor communities. Discuss with your team: should the government provide every vendor with a credit card reader? Should all cash be made “smart” so that it knows who owns it—reducing the value of theft in hopes of reducing street crime in struggling communities?

Concluding Questions and Additional Areas of Inquiry

    • The television show Revolution posited a world in which electricity stopped working. Discuss with your team: how much would this dramatic development change your life?
    • Is easy access to Google making us worse at remembering things? Is Google Maps making us less able to get around on our own? Discuss with your team: when does the application of technology become dependence on technology—and is dependence necessarily bad?
    • Consider enabling technologies first introduced in works of fiction, such as medical tricorders, Babel fish, robot servants, and the hoverboard. Is any explanation given for they work? Are we developing anything like them in the real world—and, if so, what is the science behind them? Should fans of their imagined versions brace themselves for disappointment?
    • Today, someone writing a screenplay can use screenwriting software to ensure they follow the right template and approach. Such technologies have seemingly transformed the creative process; it was not long ago that a writer working on the second draft of a novel would need to retype it from scratch, instead of opening a DOCX file and moving words around. It was not long before that that there were no typewriters with which to type that novel in the first place. Discuss with your team: have technologies allowed us to be more creative? How do you foresee their impact in the future—will every artist use a drawing pad, or will computers take over the creation of art altogether?
    • Consider internationalization (referred to as i18n) and localization in software development. What kinds of factors do they need to take into account? What are some other ways developers can take to ensure their tools are accessible by a wider range of people? Discuss with your team: should all websites and online services be required to exist in multiple languages and with modifications to account for different cultural norms in different societies?
    • Spend some time learning about the technologies that enable learning—from the archaic abacus and slide rule to newer devices that some schools are phasing out while others struggle to obtain them at all, such as overhead projectors and whiteboards. How do automated response systems (“clickers”) work, and how can they be used in non-competitive classroom settings? Of course, the earliest “automated answers” were in paper form, through scannable sheets popularized by companies such as Scantron beginning in the 1970s. Discuss with your team: in what ways are tests that are easier to score good for students and teachers? Do such systems have any downsides for teachers or students—and in what ways are they vulnerable to exploitation?
    • Can the same technology that enables one group disable another?