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Impractical Technology

What motivates us to use certain technology?  By conventional wisdom, using advanced technology is supposed to make doing tasks easier and more efficient.  However, on a stroll through my neighborhood, I encountered a striking example of the exact opposite.

I was turning down the street when I saw a man on a riding lawn mower mowing his front yard—nothing unusual, except that this yard was about the same size as mine.  Here’s a picture for reference:

View of my front yard

In a word—it’s tiny.  Seeing this intensely focused man maneuvering the vehicle around his diminutive yard reminded me of Austin Powers on a golf cart trying to do a 3-point turn in the hallway.  With an old-school push mower, it takes me less than ten minutes to mow my whole front yard; I can’t imagine a riding lawn mower would save much time, and certainly not without extra hassle.

Sometimes when we’re deciding which technology to use for a given task, it’s about more than ease or efficiency.  Sometimes our desire to use something novel or exciting overshadows all else.

Even big corporations aren’t immune from this kind of thinking.  Take the case of the electric car company Tesla.  In an effort to fully automate the production of their Model 3 sedan, CEO Elon Musk supported the development of a “fluff bot” that used advanced sensors and programming to perform the job of attaching fiberglass fluff to battery packs.  It was a complete flop.  Fluff bot was awkward and convoluted, causing significant delays in production.  The solution?  Just let a human attach the fluff.

Cartoonist Rube Goldberg drew absurd inventions that illustrated what would happen if we took our propensity for overcomplicated solutions to the extreme:

Source: Wikipedia

Rube Goldberg machines” like the self-operating napkin have a lot in common with fluff bot or the oversized lawn mower—they are primarily used for their own sake.

Is that necessarily a bad thing?  No—and in fact, some good can come from it.  We can learn a great deal by using and developing technology, even if the end product is useless or overcomplicated.  Say you wanted to get the self-operating napkin to actually work.  In setting up step C (spoon flings cracker up to parrot), you would discover the relationship between the force applied to an object and its resulting curved trajectory.  In planning step K (cigar lighter ignites rocket), you’d gain an understanding of the energies involved for a given amount of rocket fuel. 

And though fluff bot may have been misconceived, its underlying technologies—robotics, machine learning, visual sensors—still hold promise for a variety of non-fluff applications.

But what if we build a technology that has no application whatsoever and ends up nothing but a quixotic display?  That’s okay, too.  There’s nothing wrong with finding technology intrinsically desirable.  Maybe we’ve solved a problem with technology—like designing a machine to dispense a gumball—and want to make a ridiculously intricate version of that gumball machine just for fun.   The latest technology can be an expression of our ingenuity; indulging in it is our way of saying “let’s keep things interesting.” 

I may not be trading in my push mower anytime soon, but I’m still curious to see the next unusual way we’ll think of to mow the lawn.

Want to see some hilariously impractical technology?  Check out the robotic creations of Simone Giertz like this slightly ineffective breakfast machine.
This content was made possible in part by the Institute of Museum and Library Services.


Nick Villagra is a STEM Educator at the Connecticut Science Center, responsible for developing and delivering science experiences, including classroom lab programs, stage shows, and vacation camps. Nick holds a Bachelor’s of Science in Engineering from Swarthmore College. and has been a speaker at the New England Museum Association conference. Always looking to put a unique stamp on the Science Center’s offerings, Nick enjoys incorporating custom-designed 3D printed materials for students to interact with.