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Hidden Agendas

Your cellphones and iPods may have a lot more uses than you thought

By Rick Marshall

I’ll admit it: I have a college degree in computer science and I still haven’t figured out how to use all of the tools and programs that come with my iPod.

I can do the basic stuff, like transferring music from album to iPod and arranging groups of songs into playlists, but these days, that’s like being able to use your high-speed Internet connection only to check e-mail—simply put, it’s a waste of technological potential. So now I’m learning how to do some of those things not described in the user manual that the iPod’s software makes possible: like making “smart playlists” that shuffle only certain types of songs into the rotation, or synchronizing the calendar tool in my iPod to the calendar in my laptop computer. I’m even learning how to make short stories available to read via the iPod’s “notes” tool. Sure, some of the uses I’ve discovered probably wouldn’t get Apple’s approval (and some, I suspect, are downright illegal), but really, you’d be surprised what a few Google searches can turn up.

That’s the thing about tech culture: Someone’s always finding a use for new technology that its creators never envisioned. As William Gibson, the “father” of cyberpunk literature (he was writing Matrix-like stories when Keanu Reeves was still using a See ’n Say), observed in a 1989 Rolling Stone article, “the street finds its own use for things.”

Along those same lines, a friend of mine once described (in his Weblog, of course) a discovery he made quite a few years ago while waiting for a train. On a whim, he decided to see if there were any wireless Internet signals in the station that he could pick up on his handheld computer. Those being the infant years of wireless Internet technology, he was surprised to find a few signals out there—but he couldn’t figure out where they were coming from. He asked one of the station security guards about the signals, and ended up being interrogated about his interest in the signals. It turns out that the signals his computer located were broadcast by hidden cameras placed around the station—a security measure that wasn’t supposed to be public knowledge. Apparently, the technology for sniffing out these signals had evolved beyond the initial scope of the security system’s creators, and my friend, who managed to convince the station’s security force of his innocence, found a new use (now a “camera detector” of sorts) for his handheld computer.

And that’s only scratching the surface of the unintended uses people have found for new technology. Heard of those cell-phone jammers that are illegal here in the United States? Well, apparently they’re saving more than just movie-theater ambiance for the American military now that cell-phone signals are being used as remote detonators for roadside bombs. Yes, that means that this trend has evolved to the point at which people are putting technology to use in ways its creator never intended in order to counteract other alternative uses.

But this isn’t a new phenomenon. In a 2002 essay by Cory Doctorow, co-editor of the popular blog BoingBoing and a contributing writer to Wired and The New York Times, the jack-of-all-trades tech author theorized that “the measure of a product’s success is how far it diverges from its creator’s intentions.” Whether it’s soldiers at Normandy using condoms to keep saltwater out of their rifles or someone using their home computer to combine two different musicians’ albums and create a new one, the spirit is the same, he argued.

“The innovation only begins in earnest once a new invention leaves the production line and falls into the hands of consumers,” wrote Doctorow.

Although Doctorow’s essay was intended as a statement against copyright-minded legislation that stifles innovation, it got me thinking that maybe, just maybe, it’s actually a consumer’s duty to test the potential uses of the technology he or she owns. If people didn’t start making mix tapes years ago, would we have the MP3 players of today? Essentially, companies saw consumers “hacking” their products to make it fit their desires, and these companies then made products to serve that desire—and, without a doubt, make a buttload of money.

That’s why I’m so motivated to explore the potential uses of my iPod these days: I feel like it’s something that, as a consumer of this technology, I need to do if I ever want to be offered anything better. And it seems to be paying off. Where it once took six different computer programs and three hours of work to create a disc that would play in my DVD player, current models make it easy for anyone with a computer to create a DVD-playable disc in a matter of minutes. And after years of fiddling around with my old iPod in order to listen to weekly news broadcasts, recent versions of the iPod come with intuitive software that makes playing these audio files easy.

So there it is, gadget owners, this is your call to action. If you’re the sort of person who has been skipping over various functions in your iPod, cell phone or handheld computer, you owe it to yourself and the rest of the gadget-using world to step up to the plate and explore the different purposes your assorted geekery can serve. After all, there’s a world of technology out there and it gets outdated pretty quickly. If you don’t bother to learn how to use the tools you’re given, you might find yourself getting outdated, too.

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