One day, not so long ago, I was riding home from work when I happened to make a left turn around a blind corner, only to come face to face with a mechanical monster. It was about the length and width of a small car, but only half as high. Given its size and shape, it was immediately apparent that no-one was driving it. For the briefest of moments I simply stared at it in shock and amazement as it approached me up a grassy hill, before my momentum carried me within sight of a young guy standing further down the slope. He was wearing a fluorescent yellow vest, and using both hands to operate what I could clearly see was a small remote control. My mechanical monster was a remote-controlled lawnmower.
Blocked from my view until the very last moment, I had been unable to determine at first glance what this giant thing actually was, whilst the noise it made had been indistinguishable from the passing traffic as I approached it from around the bend. With my mystery solved, I shook my head in wonder and thought to myself, “So, remote-controlled lawnmowers the size of a car are apparently a thing now! Good to know...”, before I pretty much forgot about it as I continued on my way home. It was only later that night as I was reflecting back on my 'close encounter', that I realised how significant it truly was – for the first time I could remember, I had been genuinely shocked at the sight of real-world technology.
Now don't get me wrong – I understand completely that a remote-controlled lawnmower is not that significant in and of itself. Motor mowers have been around for almost a century now, and the ability to control a mechanical device by remote control even longer. What made this particular machine so significant to me was the fact that it was so unexpected – I had no frame of reference for it, absolutely no expectation of seeing anything like it when I encountered it that day. And it seems that these days, a reaction as intense as mine had been – no matter how brief – is actually rather rare.
It's difficult to argue with the view that we are currently living in an age of wonders. As I type this, several robots are slowly trundling their way across Mars. It was confirmed just last month that Voyager 1 has left our solar system and is now making its way through interstellar space – the first man-made object ever to do so. Learning of both of these events made me think to myself,“Wow, isn't that amazing?!” But at the same time I wasn't stunned. They were two incredibly impressive achievements that at the same time I did not find the least bit surprising, and for me at least, that is what seems to be the real issue here.
In virtually every field of human endeavour, extraordinary advances have been and continue to be made. One of the most incredible realisations I have ever come to in my entire life was this – the Wright brothers, Orville and Wilbur, made the first successful flight in an aeroplane made largely of wood, flying roughly ten feet above some sandy hills in North Carolina in 1903. Less than 66 years later, a man walked on the moon. The rate of technological advancement required to go from one of these two extremes to the other in less than a single lifetime simply boggles my mind. And yet I can honestly say that not even this shocks me as much as I was in that briefest of moments when I first saw that frickin' lawnmower, and this is where I shall finally present the hypothesis that has resulted from my deliberations on these various matters – generally speaking, we are not truly amazed by technological improvements. We are amazed when we see something that is genuinely new.
When I first saw the lawnmower I was amazed, but only because I hadn't seen it before and didn't know what it was. Once I realised it was just a lawnmower, I no longer found it amazing. This is because at that point I knew that as strange as it was, at the end of the day it was merely a lawnmower, and I had seen lawnmowers many times before. The true significance of this realisation is in the fact that as incredible as so many aspects of life in the twenty-first century are, it seems to me that it is rare that we are shown something that is completely new – something for which we truly have no frame of reference. I'm old enough to remember a time when there was no such thing as a 'mobile' phone. A time when music was played on records and cassettes. But how must people have felt in the early twentieth century when they saw an aeroplane fly over their heads for the very first time?! The internet is an obvious example of a truly remarkable advancement in technological development that has occurred in recent times, but has anything happened during our lifetimes that can compare to the awe that people must have felt at first seeing a plane fly?
When we look at what is available to us today, a smart phone for example is an extraordinary device that allows a person to accomplish a truly remarkable range of tasks, and it didn't even exist a mere ten years ago. Yet I have to admit, I'm far more annoyed with mine on the rare occasions when it doesn't work, than I am impressed with it when it works exactly as it should. Younger generations today are often accused of taking technology for granted. But if this is actually true, then perhaps it is due in large part to the fact that we have in a sense already seen it all before? A smart phone may be revolutionary, but by the year 2013, I think we can safely say that a simple telephone definitely is not. Maybe being left completely awestruck requires being shown something truly revolutionary – something completely new. The industrial revolution resulted in an explosion of previously unheard of products and inventions, but that time has long since passed. Recent decades have primarily seen the development of existing technologies, and the improvement of previously established products. Consequently, that thrill of surprise that comes with true discovery is perhaps somewhat more difficult for us to capture, and we find ourselves not being impressed by what becomes available to us, but disappointed that it doesn't work better, or that it didn't arrive sooner.
In moments of extreme self-obsession, I've often lamented the fact that I was born when I was, since it seems apparent that I will be dead and gone long before the true age of human space exploration begins, an age that I believe will inevitably come to pass, and the thought of which fascinates me with its seemingly infinite possibilities. It seems that the best I can hope for is to stay alive long enough to witness a manned mission to Mars, but if I'm completely honest with myself, I can't say with any degree of certainty that I would be especially amazed by that if I did see it. The Apollo 11 moon landing has been described by many who lived through it as having stunned the world when it occurred in 1969, but by the launch of Apollo 13 less than a year later, television ratings for the space program had plummeted in the U.S. People had become bored with something that they felt they had already seen – even when that something happened to be three men planning to land on the moon. Would a mission to Mars really be so different? And if it did prove itself able to capture the world's imagination, how long would it be before it inevitably became 'yesterday's news?'
In saying all of this, I'm not suggesting that we ought to bow down before our toaster every morning in a show of appreciation for all that technology has given us. But it does strike me as something of a shame that we are apparently unable to experience that sense of awe and wonder in the presence of the new as easily or as often as was perhaps the case in the past. How one might go about overcoming this feeling of familiarity with all that the modern world has to offer is something I have not yet managed to figure out. However, as long as I remember the fact that I was once albeit briefly amazed at the sight of a machine that cuts grass, I feel that there is hope for me to re-experience that incredible feeling I had of shock and awe. Or then again, maybe I'll just wait until someone invents a machine that can recreate that feeling for me, and then fail to be impressed by it.