Delights and Disappointments- A Personal History of Technology

A Lead Member of Technical Staff at the AT&T Foundry describes a half-century of his technology-focused existence. In addition to describing how technology relates to his family, friends, and career, he will challenge your assumptions and perspectives about the future.

This post is based on a talk I gave on June 26, 2018, to about 60 AT&T employees who were participating in a Technical Development Program. As part of the TDP, they are encouraged to attend and host small group meetings. My friend Josh invited me to speak to the group. Josh and I have been meeting for a weekly, hour-long, wide-ranging breakfast chat for more than a year, so he knew what he was getting into. I picked the topic, and wrote the "teaser" above. Working from the notes I used for the talk, and from my memory, I have attempted to turn this into a readable post, or, at least a snippet of my life.

You may find this easier to parse if you try to imagine me speaking to you, like your own private Ted talk, less well-rehearsed, but still carefully edited. These are not the exact words I spoke; they are the words I would have spoken if I could edit myself on the fly.

1. What do I mean by "technology"?

Technology comes from the same root word as "technique", meaning art or skill. Wikipedia says it is the application of science, using principles, processes, and nomenclature. I think the development of technology through history has tended to follow Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, first addressing physiological needs, then enabling safety, love/belonging, esteem, and ultimately self- actualization.

How does technology relate to other disciplines and studies? I think science and research (the so-called "hard sciences"), provide information and discoveries that support Technology and Engineering (what one might call the practical or applied sciences) which then provide tools and techniques that support the development of history, art, religion, philosophy, etc. Note that these are not in any particular order of importance -- in my opinion, development of these "soft" outcomes is as critical as science and technology, as I mention below.

It is no exaggeration to say that my life has been steeped in an awareness of technology. In preparation for the talk, I created a list of as many technologies as I could think of. I organized and guided my thoughts in broad categories that were mostly subjective and time-based. Here is the list.

As further evidence of the impact of technology in my life, I would note that

2. Goals of this chat

(This section explained why the listeners should pay any attention to what I had to say. It was intended to provide something concrete for them to write down if they were taking notes, although, in this case, I provided a hand-out to the attendees, which also included a link to a text-based version of the notes in case anyone wanted to use that as the starting point for their own note-taking. As near as I could tell, no one did.)

My goals for this talk are to

3. Technologies I have personally encountered

Where such a list comes from

After much ado, I finally get into the meat of the talk -- actual technologies. Note that, to make a list like the one linked above, requires one to

live long enough;

(Here I inserted an aside, my brief recommendations for how to live longer: Michaels Pollan's "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants." followed by my personal additions: work and work out.)

remember events;

(I think the ability to remember this kind of stuff is just in my DNA; I do read a lot, and take some notes about interesting stuff, but mostly I can just remember technical things. Unfortunately for my ever-patient spouse, my memory is not as good for non-technical information.)

and notice the technology in order to remember it.

(Again, this seems to just be in my DNA; or perhaps I was excessively rewarded as a child for making the occasional profound technical observation.)

An alternative look at the list as slices of technology

The chronological order of my list as shown above fails to reveal relationships between various technologies, which might be described as as threads throughout my life. Here are three specific subjects that exemplify these sorts of threads:

Tuning a guitar

I started playing the guitar at the age of 14. Since we had a piano in our home, I learned to tune by figuring out which piano notes corresponded to the guitar strings. But I couldn't carry the piano with me, so I acquired an inexpensive pitch pipe, a device with 6 reeds tuned to the 6 strings on the guitar. Later I learned from another guitar player, Alan, that a metal tuning fork held against the bridge of the guitar provided a very precise A-note from which I could tune the rest of the strings.

In our high-school music room, I saw my first electronic tuner, a strobe tuner, which used a microphone to pick up audible notes, and provided a visual display (a spinning disk illuminated by a neon bulb) which appeared to stop moving when it heard a true pitch.

Not many years later, small, battery-operated electronic tuners became affordable, followed by smart-phone tuning applications.

As you can see I have seen quite a range of tuning technology.


I don't remember when I first heard "Red sky at morning, sailors take warning, red sky at night sailors' delight," but I definitely remember hearing such lore and weather sayings as a child. I also learned to read the Old Farmer's Almanac, which optimistically attempted to publish weather trends a year in advance. Then came the newspaper, with its daily predictions and the radio and television with multiple reports and predictions throughout the day. Now the internet and my smart phone not only bring me hourly temperature and precipitation forecasts, and detailed history, but also allow me the delight of looking at near-instant NOAA radar and satellite images so I can draw my own detailed weather conclusions.


Perhaps the oldest light source I've ever used was the kerosene lamp; we had incandescent and fluorescent bulbs in our home, but I liked having a metal camp light that burned kerosene, and a glass home version as back-ups in case the power went out. (Kerosene doesn't evaporate very fast, making it a reliable source for back-up lighting.) Compact fluorescent bulbs sprung from the technology of the two-foot and four-foot industrial tubes, followed by efficient LED-based bulbs. The laser has its own special place in my technology history, as described in this Enoch's Thoughts posting.

Other threads

I could do similar threads (and may, one day) on the topics of sound recording, information storage, information transfer, copying (I remember the fragrant purple mimeograph machine, and actually knew how to use one), "moving picture" and video recording (8mm Kodak movie camera, loading the 16 mm projector in elementary school, using a 3/4" Sony video tape machine in college), and telephony, from analog to VOIP. See what I mean?

4. What things [technologies] delight me?

Finally, we're getting to the advertised title.

What do I mean by "delight"?

In short, I mean an appreciation for certain aspects of devices and/or services, things that "just work right". I've attempted to provide a brief rationale, but, as they say, it's complicated.

5. What things [technologies] disappoint me?

What do I mean by Disappointment?

Obviously, the other direction from delight; one way to describe it is in terms of significant distance from an ideal state; lots of room for improvement.

and the "bad" list...

6. How I select technology

First, a little about what I believe:

This list is a preamble to my selection process, with the hope of helping it make sense.

What factors do I use when selecting products or services to acquire?

Here's a list of the key factors:

  1. Stuff I understand how it works (I really don't trust things that I don't understand)
  2. Stuff I already paid for (NOAA, Wikipedia, Web hosting) -- I grow weary of ads, and of the surveillance capitalism model; paying for stuff helps avoid some of those issues.
  3. What is societal impact? Is this purchase going to help the world, or at least not hurt it? Or is it going to create tons of trash that will have to be hauled away to a landfill?
  4. What is the personal, privacy impact? (This is an increasing problem, and threatens to expose each of us to potential harm.)
  5. Can the tech be used as a tool,or for multiple purposes (the Alton Brown question about kitchen tools)?
  6. Maybe cost? In my experience, the least-cost item is likely to be the least durable, least usable. A better approach is to save money by acquiring a few useful, high-quality items, rather than multiple cheap versions.



At this point I thanked the TDPs for listening, and entertained about 15 minutes of questions. You, gentle reader, have reached the end of your experience. Thanks for hanging in.

Posted March 20, 2019