Techwit: There's always a catch in technology

Posted: Monday, April 21, 2003

Catches come in multiples of 11. That's what protagonist William Tell learns in "Then What?" (, a novel about how technology makes us nuts in an exciting kind of way. I've read "Then What?" several times, but that's because I wrote it and didn't have a choice - my editor made me. Described as Monty Python meets the Matrix meets Alvin Toffler on too much coffee, "Then What?" tackles some of the more important questions that face us, like, "Why is everything we like to eat bad for us?" And, "How come you never see the headline, 'Psychic Wins Lottery!' "

Techwit By Jason Ohler

Back to catches coming in multiples of 11. Most people know about Catch 22 (from Heller's book of the same name), which basically says "you're stuck." A classic example of Catch 22 is needing experience before you can get a job but needing a job in order to get the experience. William Tell discovers two more catches, Catch 33 and Catch 77, both of which describe fundamental truths about how technology brings out the neurosis in all of us.

Catch 33 refers to something that can only be true if you do it, but if you actually do it then it's not really true anymore. Like using a coupon to buy something you don't really need in order to save money. Like buying a computer to simplify your life. Like watching TV to stay informed. Life's full of Catch 33s. They gave birth to the saying, "there's no such thing as a free lunch."

Catch 77 says that technology makes us do things just because we can, whether we need to or not. Want proof? Hand someone a hammer and watch what happens. Within about four seconds they'll look for something to hit. They can't help it. This is why psychologist Maslow said, "to someone with a hammer the world looks like a nail." Something similar happens if you hand someone a pencil, which is why media critic Postman said, "to someone with a pencil the world looks like a paragraph." We like to think we're in charge of our tools, but the fact is that once we get a new car we look for a place to drive to, whether we need to go there or not. And if that's the way it is with a hammer, a pencil or a car, imagine the power of an Internet connection or video camera to make us do things just because we can.

One of the most important truths about technology that William Tell learns in "Then What?" comes in the form of a question: What happens when you give a bad guitar player a bigger amplifier? It's a truth I experienced first hand during the Beatlemania era. Like most young men who watched all those screaming, fainting women at Beatle concerts, I decided to pursue a career in music. Like most guitar players during that time, I tried compensating for my lack of talent by buying a bigger amplifier. What resulted was an era filled with lots of clueless guitar players playing lots of really bad, loud music. The "bigger amplifier syndrome" became the metaphor for the digital age that followed. Word processors have increased the amount of beautiful poetry in the world as well as the amount of tedious junk mail. Electronic spreadsheets have made financial planning possible while producing more misleading pie graphs than ever before. Thanks to technology, our gifts and our gaffes are amplified and fully exposed.

Where does William Tell end up at the end of his journey? He realizes that even if he can get past Catch 22 and Catch 33 and not fall prey to Catch 77, the big catch awaits him, which says, "there's always a catch." But he also learns that navigating a life full of catches becomes much more enjoyable if he turns his amplifier down.

Jason Ohler is professor of educational technology at the University of Alaska Southeast and can be reached at © 2002 Jason Ohler.

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