What pepper mills teach us about new technology

What pepper mills teach us about new technology

Contrary to what you might think, I hate new technology. What I love is innovation. Innovation where the technology is invisible.

In modern use, “technology” is shorthand for anything new where:

a) the mode of transport that conveys you towards your intended destination needs learned, special skills to operate

and/or

b) the journey towards the intended destination is uncomfortably apparent.

Before I delve into why I’ve isolated these two factors, let me tell you a story.

Les frères Peugeot put together their first pepper mill in 1842. After coffee grinders, it was one of the first things that they built (half a century before their first car).

Their pepper mill was new technology. Like most of our best innovation, it took the best of what already existed (leading edge coffee grinding technology) and built on it – their pepper mill cracked the corns into two just before it milled them, ensuring both an easy action, and freshly milled pepper every time.

Now here’s the point.

It remained “technology” for around a second after the person who wanted to use it, used it. From that moment, the technology disappeared, and all that was left was use. Efficacy. It did what it was meant to do with no special skills needed, and no apparent journey (uncomfortable or otherwise). As an indication of its elegant preeminence, Peugeot’s pepper mill became the archetype for all pepper mills that followed it. If you close your eyes, and imagine a pepper grinder (go on, you know you want to!) it’ll look like Peugeot’s original. The next time you’re in a good restaurant, turn the pepper mill over. It’ll probably be one of theirs, and it’ll almost certainly work as their original did.

It passed through the irritating “technology” phase so quickly because it did what you needed without bothering you with unnecessarily visible process. Correct, unambiguous use was natural after just one try.

A couple of years ago I wrote an information and communication technology strategy for the Arts Council (which they praised from the rooftops, then quietly ignored). The vision statement that I wrote for them was “make the T in ICT invisible”. If you’re merely communicating information, with the technology unseen, you know you’ve arrived where you need to be.

This is my model of what technology should aspire to. Anything less, might feel new and sexy to a small minority of (mainly male) geeks, but it’s a fetishism. Where technology’s obvious, it’s not yet good enough.