Get to know how your gadgets work

Blair Hanley Frank

The great science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke once posited: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” I happen to agree with him, and I think that although he was writing about fiction at the time, we have reached a point in time when the average human being considers the technology we use every day to be magical, at least in some way, shape or form.

Let’s face it: computers (including smartphones and tablets) have become complex enough that their operation is akin to following a ritual. There are a good number of people I’ve encountered who know how to make their computer do what they want it to in certain key situations, and aside from that, they’re up a creek without a paddle.

That frustrates me. While I understand that not everyone is as fascinated by the inner workings of their gadgets as I am, understanding what is going on inside your electronics is not as horrendously difficult or incomprehensible as it may seem. Furthermore, it’s important to note that understanding what’s happening will prove useful when it comes to troubleshooting and coherently explaining your problem to someone in tech support.

Gaining knowledge about the way electronics work may seem like a fool’s errand. After all, if the stuff you’re using just works, why bother? I’ve already mentioned the importance of greater understanding for technical support reasons, but there’s another reason that I find equally compelling: by understanding what’s going on inside your computer, e-reader or alarm clock, you can begin to harness the power available to you.

There are two basic means that you can go about understanding the way computers and other electronics work: either through programming or electrical engineering. While their names alone may seem daunting, it’s not too hard to pick them up thanks to the tools available both online and in print. Basic, easy-to-access knowledge about both is only a Google search or two away these days, thanks to the number of Do-it-Yourself enthusiasts who congregate on the Internet.

Since the school year is drawing to a close, now is the perfect time to start thinking about cool summer projects that you could work on. There are a bunch of great tutorials out there on how to do all manners of things, from building robots to writing a program that simply shows an image of a bouncing ball. If you have some time, poke around a web site like Instructables or pick up an issue of Make Magazine.  If you’re headed home to a more urban area, there’s a decent chance you’ll be able to find a place that holds classes on key topics like soldering and programming in Processing or C++.

I understand that when all is said and done, this may be too much for some people. That’s okay. But making an effort to understand the gadgets you use every day will make you a smarter consumer and a better end user. That’s going to have the end result of improving your relationship with technology, which in turn will make your life easier. Computers aren’t going away. They’re only going to get increasingly complicated and increasingly more prevalent. Learn how to harness their power, and you’ll go places.

Side note: If you’re interested in getting a continued dose of yours truly over the summer, I’ll be blogging at