From Aqaba to Progress Bar
What’s your relationship to the tech in your life?
In David Lean’s movie, Lawrence of Arabia, T.E. Lawrence, having just crossed the Sinai desert, strides into the British command post wearing Bedouin robes and headdress. He encounters raised eyebrows and comments from the other British officers about having “gone native.”
Though the movie played fast and loose with historical accuracy, that bit, at least, was probably true. What British officers wore in that time and place was standard-issue military khaki. While many British wore the ubiquitous colonial pith helmet in that inhospitable climate, British military officers were just beginning to be issued Arab headdress as part of their standard gear.
But it didn’t occur to most British to dress like Arabs. After Lawrence’s first visit to Emir Feisal’s camp, he took ship aboard the H.M.S. Suva. He wrote, of the experience, “I was travel-stained and had no baggage with me. Worst of all I wore a native head-cloth, put on as a compliment to the Arabs. Boyle [Suva's Captain] disapproved.” The British, and other Westerners, considered the Arabs to be, in a word, uncivilized. Their attitude toward Arab dress was that those were the kind of clothes you wore if you couldn’t make something better. But Lawrence had his reasons. In his own words:
Feisal asked me if I would wear Arab clothes like his own while in the camp. I should find it better for my own part, since it was a comfortable dress in which to live Arab-fashion as we must do. Besides, the tribesmen would then understand how to take me. The only wearers of khaki in their experience had been Turkish officers, before whom they took up an instinctive defence. If I wore Meccan clothes, they would behave to me as though I were really one of the leaders; and I might slip in and out of Feisal’s tent without making a sensation which he had to explain away each time to strangers. I agreed at once, very gladly; for army uniform was abominable when camel-riding or when sitting about on the ground; and the Arab things, which I had learned to manage before the war, were cleaner and more decent in the desert.
— from Seven Pillars of Wisdom
The “Arab things” consisted of loose robes made of cotton and wool, and the keffiyeh, a traditional Arab headdress, usually fashioned from a square cotton scarf folded into a triangle and held in place with a rope circlet. The keffiyeh and robes allow cooling air to circulate, while providing protection from direct sun and the dehydrating effects of the wind, the two defining forces of the desert. The headdress protects the mouth and eyes from blown dust and sand. In wet regions, it dries quickly. In cold regions, it keeps the wearer’s head and neck warm. And both headdress and robes are long-wearing and easy to manufacture on a cottage industry basis, using materials easily obtainable.
So, aside from the social and political considerations of dressing like the people he lived and worked with, Lawrence had highly practical reasons for adopting Arab dress. While other Europeans thought of the Arabs as basically lacking in what they considered technology, Lawrence recognized that these clothes were the Arabs’ technology, and a sophisticated one, at that …the most appropriate survival technology for their climate and lifestyle, tested and honed through centuries of use. As Lawrence wrote in a letter to his family: “The foreigners come out here always to teach, whereas they had much better to learn.”
From the mouths (and hands) of babes
I know a couple who have a 2 year old child. They’ve given him his own iPhone. It’s an older model, stripped of its cell and network connectivity. It’s basically a handheld computer and entertainment system, just the right size for his small hands.
They observe that the first thing he does with it when he picks it up is to start up a music app and let it play while he does other things. According to his parents, he’s had no trouble figuring out how to use the apps on his iPhone. He’s internalized the Multi-Touch interface so well that, one day, observing a progress bar on the family’s flat-screen TV, his response was to reach for it and attempt to slide it with his hand.
We adults might be tempted to dismiss this as mere cuteness. (“Aw, he thinks it’s like his iPhone!”) But what he actually did was he correctly identified common elements of the graphical user interface and extrapolated them from the small device in his hand to the big device in the living room. He had every right to expect that the TV would behave like a touchscreen, and that a progress bar would behave like a slider control. (Of course, it didn’t …but maybe it should?)
Technology = Tools
“Technology” is from the Greek techne (“art, skill, cunning of hand”). In short, it’s about the tools we make. Some tools we take so much for granted that we fail to recognize them as “technology” at all. You don’t have to hang out with Bedouins to find examples. Witness the lowly coat hanger. The paper clip. The pipe cleaner. Duct tape. These are all technological implementations (“tools”) that were developed for highly specific purposes, but which happen to be easily adaptable to multitudes of other uses. When you build up that culture of adaptability, that’s when a “tool” turns back into a “technology.” Sometimes the “other” uses of a thing become the uses we think of first. When was the last time you used a pipe cleaner to clean out a pipe, or duct tape to tape up a duct?
The more familiar a technology becomes, the easier it is to take for granted. To most of us, a cell phone, itself, is the technology. It just works (except when it doesn’t). But, chances are, at some point you’ve had to stop and think about the difference between text messaging vs. web chatting. Travel to someplace where you can get on a Wi-Fi network but can’t get cell reception, and you find out pretty quickly that your smartphone is not just a tool; it’s the toolbox, for a whole lot of other tools.
When technology is well designed and improved over time, it becomes invisible… as invisible as the clothes on your back. We tend to not even notice it until it doesn’t work… or when we have to give it a little extra help. What’s your relationship to the technologies in your life? Look around at the tools you use and ask yourself, are they sources of frustration, or things that help you survive and thrive? Do things work the way you expect them to, or do you find yourself having to “outsmart” them by finding roundabout ways to get them to do what they are supposed to do? Are they as natural and familiar (and as useful) to you as a keffiyeh is to a Bedouin? ^Michael R
Painting of T.E. Lawrence by Augustus John, 1919, public domain.