Sunday, May 28, 2017

De Rerum Congegnites

A lavish two page advertisment in the colour supplement to my weekend paper, paid for by Virgin TV, has introduced me to a brand new giant on the massive-brainbox scene. Never mind intense speculations about the cause of the Universe, the meaning of truth and the underlying rules of mathematics, this is a philosopher for the twenty-first century with a logic that defys all criticism. The towering intellect in question is one Ella Williamson, hitherto unknown to me, possibly because she appears to ply her trade on morning television at a time when some of us are still in bed. And this is the nub of her interpetration of the world.

My philosophy is that gadgets should be easy to use, make life better or, in some instances, save you money or keep track of your usage

I think it was Descartes who established the fundamental principle of things
 There are two types of things. Everything divides naturally into one of these two types. Things that are nice but too expensive and things that are not so nice 1

and Bertrand Russell, in a technically ferocious appendix to the Principia went further

If x, being the quotient of desirability, is less than y, the perceived value of the device or gizmo in question, then, if z is the propensity to waste one's hard-earned cash and k the likeliehood of being arsed to do anything about it, it follows, trivially, that should x/y>{k...k0}.log z/(x^y)=z!!k, that the object will be purchased but remain unused in its box until the wife throws it out in the next round of spring-cleaning. 2
However, Williamson's tenet, or axiom, that gadgets should be easy to use or make life better is revolutionary. Who knew? I always thought that a gadget should come with an undecipherable manual (albeit in twenty languages), that the cardboard box it comes in should break no matter how carefully you try to open it, that the power button should be as close as physically possible to the operating buttons (so that you turn it off instead of doing what it was you wanted to do), that any cables and power supplies should be unique to the gadget, forcing the accumulation of drawer-fulls of such stuff and that the manufacturer will in any case produce an updated version that makes your recent purchase obsolete shortly after you finally understand to use it. And therefore my philosphy was one of resignation and despair at the sheer alien nature of the universe.

I was wrong. Hitherto I shall be a loyal follower of the Williamson Thesis. I shall expect gadgets to be easy and life-enhancing. It is a tough faith to keep. I hope I can prove myself worthy.

1. Les choses qui sont jolies, Paris, 1678
2. pp832-3 (I have cut out the lengthy digression about the best colour for a fitness watch strap)
3. Pedants may quibble about the word 'congegnites' that adorns the title of this piece. I tasked the Editor to find a Latin word for gadget; he claims there isn't one but there is an Italian word 'Congegno'. OK?

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