Our Modern Gadgets Are My Childhood Fantasy Come to Life
Inspector Gadget and the Swiss Army knife paved the way for the iPhone
When I was eight, I got a Swiss Army Knife for Christmas. At that age, this was the most exciting thing to ever happen to me. It had scissors, tweezers, a toothpick, a tin opener, a knife. Everything. The fact the scissors were essentially unusable, I had never picked my teeth, and wasn’t allowed to open tins because of the sharp edges, was neither here nor there. It had capabilities and was packaged into a nifty device. It was a gadget, and pretty much the best gadget you could own.
I was fascinated by gadgets. Especially small or secret ones. Compact things that folded out with multiple functions were very much my bag — and in my bag. I had a tiny key ring camera (which I never used because I couldn’t find film small enough), a tiny compass (even though knowing north was of no use or interest to me), and magic secret ink (which again remained unused — saved for an emergency which predictably never arose).
Gadgets were something from television and film: James Bond and his cars and belts and suitcases. Or Wallace and Gromit with its Heath-Robinson contraptions that put on trousers and fried eggs. Even the eponymous Inspector Gadget: quite literally half man half gadget. In the children’s section of the newspaper, I read a largely forgotten cartoon called Mad Gadget, which consisted of diagrams of surreal contraptions. A gadget, for me, was something that did more than one thing before folding away into a neat packet. The Swiss Army knife was the ultimate gadget.
Originally “gadget” meant a small device with a particular purpose but gradually became dismissive slang for generic, unnamable devices.
My dad had the opposite feeling about gadgets. And actually the opposite definition as well. For him, gadgets were gimmicks that did one thing, usually badly. Why have a device for chopping avocados when you could use a knife and a spoon? I wanted one device that could do many things, he was happy to use many devices to do one thing if it avoided buying something else (and then having to wash it up). But I suppose we at least agreed that gadgets did tasks badly. I wasn’t so blinded by love for my Swiss Army knife to realize that the kitchen scissors were a better option for cutting things. “Oh, not another gadget,” my dad would say on Christmas morning, unwrapping a gift from a distant relative to find a twisted piece of metal that could supposedly separate egg yolks from whites. I never thought of these as gadgets though. James Bond wouldn’t have one of those hidden in the lining of his jacket.
My dad’s definition of gadgets was more supported by the dictionary than mine, but the fact we were drawn to alternate meanings was due to our different life experiences. He mainly encountered unwanted gifts; I mainly encountered fictional grappling hook belts. Originally “gadget” meant a small device with a particular purpose but gradually became dismissive slang for generic, unnamable devices. “Often,” the dictionary says, “either clever or complicated.” We don’t have a name (or, sometimes, a need) for a thing that peels and chops avocados, so we refer to it, with contempt, as a gadget. Used as a general-purpose word (a thingamabob, a whatsit) for newly invented devices, “gadget” became associated with technology and the future: Things with new names that hadn’t yet entered common parlance. Things we didn’t yet know whether we needed or not.
A recent update to the dictionary now lists consumer electronics as gadgets: the iPhone, Alexa, USB sticks. “Is this a gadget?” The Verge says, of a device that monitors marijuana plants, “Yes. It pairs over Wi-Fi, if you needed further confirmation.” In this case, the marijuana waterer probably is a gadget in terms of my dad’s definition as well. Gadget in the technology sense has now become the primary meaning of the word. If you search the internet for “gadget,” the first match is a site offering “cool tech gift ideas.” One person’s gadget is another person’s Christmas shopping sorted.
I have a love-hate relationship with gadgets. I think we all do. I wouldn’t be without my smartphone. More than any loved one it is the first thing I look at in the morning and the last thing I look at before I go to sleep. I am ashamed of the Screen Time stats on my phone, and in an effort to do better, I put it down and turn to my Kindle. We have all become Inspector Gadget with our technology grafted to us — plugged into our ears, strapped to our wrists, gripped by our hands. We feared an invasive, medical procedure — Borg, Cybermen, Robocop, the Six Million Dollar Man — but until recently we lined up in the rain outside Apple Stores to willingly attach the latest gadgets to ourselves. Now we order them online and essential workers risk their health to deliver flying camera drones to our doorstep.
I swing from one extreme to the other. Sometimes I am an early adopter and eagerly wait in line for the latest bandwagon so I can jump aboard, at other times I put away all my technology and live in a house like a cross between a monastery and an Apple Store — an empty desk with just a computer in the middle. But I am bad at being extreme. Years ago, after the pendulum swing from one such clear out, I bought a Wi-Fi radio on the strength of a set of features I didn’t need, only to find the features I did need didn’t work. I jumped on Bluetooth headphones a decade ago, found they kept disconnecting, and I gave up. But I never learn. On my desk are a set of AirPods that randomly disconnect in the left ear. A few years ago I bought some internet-enabled smart scales. I’ve never updated the firmware on them (I’m not even sure I can). They’ve probably been taken over by Russian hackers now. I think of them as a digital sleeper agent. A sort of gadget version of The Americans.
We have all become Inspector Gadget with our technology grafted to us — plugged into our ears, strapped to our wrists, gripped by our hands.
The same part of my brain that is drawn to life hacks — tips to help you do things faster, smarter, better — is drawn to gadgets. Maybe it would be useful to have a smart speaker, I think, as I eye up the Alexas and Google Homes and HomePods, mentally upselling myself to the idea. Months later, in a fit of minimalist pique, I’ll unplug them, along with all the other devices, and shove them in the back of a cupboard. My life is an endless boxing and unboxing exercise, like watching the same viral YouTube review video forward and backward, over and over. The reality is, we don’t really need any of these features, but in a world gone topsy-turvy, it’s nice a dream to imagine everything just working. The forests may be burning, but at least we can tick off streaming audio to the living room. Maybe, I think, as I unbox my Wi-Fi radio again, I’ll get UPnP to work seamlessly across all my devices this time (I won’t). Perhaps I need to get a new and more cutting-edge device. I look guiltily at the packaging and cardboard and imagine all the rare earth metals that have gone into these devices. Apple may have taken the plug out of the iPhone box, but I fear even the richest company on the planet making the ultimate sacrifice to charge us an additional $19 for a plug isn’t going to be enough to save the planet.
Wireless Charging Wastes Tons of Energy. Will MagSafe Help the iPhone 12?
A new charging method could make a big difference
Our modern gadgets are my childhood fantasy come to life. They are tiny and contain an infinity of features. True, you can’t separate egg whites with an iPhone, but you can use one to order a meringue via Deliveroo and, in a way, isn’t that the same thing? When Steve Jobs unveiled the first iPhone, he described it as a widescreen iPod touch, a mobile phone, and an internet communications device. But we no longer enumerate the list of things our smartphones can do. They can do everything. And still, like my Swiss Army knife, with its unused toothpicks and tin openers, I’m delighted by features I never use: processors so fast there’s nothing I could possibly throw at them to tax them, the ability to turn my face into an animated cartoon dragon, cameras that take staged portraits of me, virtual stickers. The list of smartphone features I don’t use is longer than the list of features I do use. Snarky comments aside about Apple charging extra for plugs, I don’t need another one. The charger was just one more feature I liked but didn’t need.
James Bond’s gadgets always turned out to be exactly what he needed. Q would provide him a car with skis and a passenger ejector seat, and 30 minutes later, Bond would find himself driving across the snow with someone he didn’t like much in the seat beside him. Unlike in the real world, there was no waste. His car didn’t have a toothpick in the gearstick that he never used. I wonder if we are drawn to unneeded features out of a sense of possibility (wouldn’t it be nice to be the sort of person who needed a LiDAR scanner and a studio-quality camera) or a Scout-like sense of preparedness. In an unsettled world, it’s nice to know that our cameras, at least, have more megapixels than we’ll ever need.
Even my gadget-adverse dad has an iPad now. But then, he might point out, it isn’t a gadget according to his definition, only according to mine. And maybe this is the point. The gadgets I find myself sticking with are the ones that have so many uses the manufacturers don’t even list them anymore. Don’t tell him, but my dad was right: It is the single-purpose devices — the Wi-Fi hotspots and radios, the countless smart things — that end up in the back of the drawer, along with the egg separators and jar looseners, destined to become just another feature in an even more gadgety gadget.