There’s a term used in environmental circles: charismatic megafauna. It refers to the endangered animal species that get all the attention from the media and the public.
Lots of species are threatened with extinction, but the charismatic megafauna get most of the documentaries and donations. You know: pandas, lions, elephants, tigers – animals that are either cute or majestic. Nothing microscopic or slithery, that lives in a trench or looks like a skull.
It’s obviously silly that creatures we can anthropomorphise get most of the preservation money, but, fortunately, in another part of the environmental forest, there’s the Ugly Animal Preservation Society (UAPS): a tiny organisation trying to redress the balance. They are devoted to the creatures whose looks and sliminess defy you to save them. The UAPS believes that the lion is no more deserving of preservation than the hagfish. (Google “hagfish”, but don’t blame me for the nightmares.)
All of which has me wondering how this all works in technology. What are the charismatic megatechs, and what makes them so?
Perhaps the blockchain is the technology equivalent of the panda. You hear an awful lot about it without ever being clear what exactly it’s for and why we should care if it disappears. (Don’t write in, that’s a little harsh on the panda.) The other big hitters are probably drones, robots, AI and self-driving cars. It used to be smartphones and 3D printing, but they’ve become too ubiquitous and banal. You can’t be charismatic if you’re everywhere.
Watch a micro ‘Pac-man’ capture a live cell
What makes those things charismatic? Rareness obviously plays a part. Not all drones are special, for instance. No one’s that excited about the £15 ones you see in those “gifts for men” stores in shopping centres. Maybe drones are like cats. We’ll have the small ones in our houses to entertain us (although the people who have loads of them are seen as a bit weird). But it’s the big, deadly ones that really fascinate us.
That’s clearly a factor in what makes tech “sexy” – some military pedigree somewhere, something martial and malevolent. Money’s obviously important, too – the media doesn’t like technology that’s not making somebody rich.
A lot of this tech attention smells like old-fashioned sexism; the technologies that get the hype are those associated with traditionally male activities (war, money, driving), whereas those associated with women are denied charismatic status.
So if you were going to start a Society For The Recognition of Disregarded Technologies, the first one you should embrace would be washing machines. They are incredibly sophisticated robotic devices. They deal with water, electricity, high temperatures and violent motion in close proximity, and are controlled by deeply nuanced fuzzy logic systems.
If more men did the laundry, washing machines would be as hyped and alluring as drones. But, because they have been domesticated and are typically used by women, they don’t get their share of the glory.
You see the same condescension in all the fuss about “internet fridges”. Sure, there are some dumb security decisions being made here, but there’s a feeling in some of this coverage that technologies such as fridges and washing machines don’t deserve to be connected to the internet because they’re domestic, meaning they’re trivial and undeserving of the attention of serious engineers.
It’s an easy pose to strike – I’ve done it myself – but washing machines should not be disregarded. The statistician Hans Rosling made a convincing argument that the washing machine is the most significant invention of the Industrial Revolution, because it freed millions of women from unproductive drudgery and gave them the freedom to educate themselves and their families.
Washing machines deserve just as much respect as drones. Or snow leopards. And don’t even get me started on knitting.
Russell Davies is a contributing editor at WIRED and an occasional blogger at russelldavies.com