Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Giving the Gift of Technology

Museum 2.0 is on semi-vacation this week. I’m writing this from Lake Tahoe. Yes, it’s beautiful, and I hope you are all having comparably wonderful experiences with family and friends. And while I’m not someone who's hot and heavy on stuff exchange, I appreciate the value of gifts and want to encourage you to consider giving your loved ones the gift of technology this season.

I’m not talking about plastic fish that sing along with your iPod (HIGHLY annoying), electric knives, or a subscription to the latest web-based social network cum parallel reality. I’m talking about giving people things they can use, that they would like, that inform and support their lives.

When you get someone a gift, you try to find something that fits these criteria. Similarly, when we receive gifts, we evaluate how well they fit into and enhance our lives. The superwarm slippers with slip-proof rubber soles? Priceless. The singing clock? Not so much.

When we receive gifts, we evaluate them. If they pass the internal test, we keep, use, and treasure them. If not, we regift, hide, or lose them.

This evaluative quality is missing from the way most of us approach and absorb new technology. In most cases, the hype that precedes a tool is so overwhelming that its functional value is lost in its charm appeal. Consider the grandfather who points to a computer and asks if it does google, or the college student who downloads killer app after killer app, without wondering (or caring) how the software will affect or support her life. We don't think, "is this X useful for me?" We download with abandon, or, disgusted or afraid based on previous experience, avoid the technology altogether.

When hype is the driver, the essential step of evaluating a given technology for its functional value is lost. And when we stop evaluating technology for its functionality, we stop thinking of it as a tool. And when we stop thinking of it as a tool, we start having strange and unhealthy relationships with it, ranging from suspicion to lust and everywhere in-between.

When we give technology as gifts, we give tools to be used and appreciated. The technology, like other gifts, is evaluated, not hyped or coerced. We put on smiles and thank yous, and then we take the gifts home and try them on. We don't think "gosh! I have to keep this because it was written up on Slashdot!" or "I have to wear this sweater because it has intrinsic hip value that I don't understand!" With gifts, we decide for ourselves.

I first started appreciating this conceptual framing of technology as tool/gift a few weeks ago, when I made applesauce for the first time. Last summer, when we moved off the grid, my mother-in-law began giving us pioneer-era technological gifts I’d never encountered before, including a food mill.

For those as blissfully clueless as I, a food mill looks like a conical colander. It has a wooden pestle-like implement that fits the shape of the cone, so you can mash up food that then comes out, uniformly small, from the colander. For months, this thing sat high on a shelf in the kitchen. It was vaguely offensive to me—a superfluous gadget taking up space and gathering dust. A gift that had not passed muster.

All of this changed when we picked the apples off the tree and spent an afternoon making applesauce. The food mill is AWESOME at making applesauce. It’s more ergonomic, fun, and speedy than a Cuisinart (which we can’t power anyway)—and much easier to clean. After the applesauce was made, the food mill went back up on the same shelf, but with a new status: that of a useful tool.

This story is not meant as a quaint homily about the value of arcane kitchen gadgets. It’s an example of how technology, when given lovingly and wisely, can be a functional, fabulous gift. Kay knew that the food mill was a useful tool for our lifestyle. She introduced us to a technology I wasn’t aware of, and now we have a tool that enhances our lives.

Think over the last year or two—what are the most useful technological tools you have integrated into your life? Who else could benefit from them?

Yesterday, I helped my stepfather, a doctor, reconfigure his cell phone so that loved ones calls come in with a distinctive ring—so when he’s on vacation he knows which calls to answer and which are from griping patients. Last month, I helped my husband get started on Facebook, and now he’s constantly exclaiming about the old friends it has brought back into his life. These things don’t have to be complicated. They should be useful tools specific to the intended recipient, gifts that they will use and enjoy.

My short list of technologies I would give as gifts:
  • Google homepages for people who use the same websites frequently but aren’t ready for RSS readers and other personalization tools
  • Skype (plus a headset) for anyone making a lot of international calls
  • an IM client (I like Adium) for any business unit suffering from constant noisy interruptions of employees asking each other quick questions
  • for anyone with out-of-control web bookmarks
  • suggestions for blogs, podcasts, and other content of specific interest to the intended
  • iGo power adaptors for anyone working off the grid or powering laptops in the car
What’s your favorite tech tool gift? What’s the item that has brought the most utility or value to your life? What’s the tool someone you love needs?

3 comments, add yours!:

Anonymous said...

My husband and I have volunteered for many years with an after school enrichment program in a public housing development. He has downloaded and taught the kids to use the MIT computer programming software "Scratch." We've also followed closely the One Laptop Per Child project which was launched at MIT. This year, when OLPC announced the "Give One. Get One." program -- I ordered a laptop for my husband to use at our volunteer program (and paid for a second laptop going to a child in a developing country). Then I went out and raised contributions and purchased two more laptops for the after school program. They've arrive and its been a great present. You can still order an OLPC laptop (and donate one)until December 31.

Nina Simon said...

Thanks for sharing your inspiring family efforts! It makes me think of the non-profit Tech Soup, which hooks up people with technical skills (and a desire to help others) with non-profits in need of support. For people who know how to set up a website etc., it can be a really meaningful way to help schools and other organizations that need the help.

rz said...


I totally agree with your criteria for evaluating technology. And I'd have to name as my #1 gift-worthy web app (now my mother can share all her quilts with the world!). But I have a really hard time imagining someone latching on to a technology that they didn't really like. Maybe I'm just sheltered, but I feel no obligation to use something merely because it exists. If such people are out there though, by all means, let them follow your advice!


ps: #1 non-electronic technology that I'd give is a pressure-cooker.