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Jeremy In Flight

Marveling at the mundane

When was the last time you marveled at a piece of everyday technology? We are surrounded by machines and tools that we take for granted, incredible technologies that have become so commonplace that they've lost the ability to amaze us.

Flash drives are surely on this modern list of the mundane. They’re cheap. They’re everywhere. They’re boring. Go ahead and tell me you've never accidentally washed one in a pants pocket.

So then why was I dumbstruck recently by a simple 32-gigabyte flash drive? As devices go, it was nothing special. I had bought it to back up files from my laptop, stuff that wasn't already synced in cloud storage. And after the download, as I cradled this half-ounce of plastic, metal and software in my palm, I began to consider the enormity of what I was holding onto. In a space less than three-quarters of a cubic inch were the compressed contents of nearly every document and photo on my computer. I couldn't see, read or touch them, but they were nonetheless there, digitized and formless. For almost the entirety of human existence, nobody possessed an information storage device such as this, and now I had one for $19.95.

If it sounds silly to write about a flash drive with such breathlessness, well, that’s the point. We’re jaded, and rightfully so. But every now and then, it’s important to pause and marvel.

First of all, to wonder at the everyday takes effort. Or it takes time, at least, and today it’s easier than ever to occupy the mind with screens and notifications without allowing a moment to think. To marvel at what’s right in front of you requires giving your mind permission to be unoccupied, to wander just enough so that you can see the details of the familiar anew.

In this era of “disruptive innovation,” we crave The Next Big Thing but find little that satisfies. What’s current is old, and what’s new is often oversold. Our technological marketplace is flooded daily with hyperbole. “Incredible,” “amazing,” “awesome” — these words have become cheap and meaningless. The irony is that we are living through legitimately amazing times. I wonder whether we are present enough to appreciate it.

I also believe that by pausing to marvel, we flex our curiosity. It’s a small act that keeps us questioning and sharpening our perspective on the world. What does it mean for a flash drive to hold 32 gigabytes of information? There’s more to unpack here than meets the eye:

Gigabyte: a multiple of the unit byte. One equals approximately 1 billion bytes.

Byte: a unit of digital information most commonly consisting of eight bits.

Bit: the basic unit of information in computing and digital communications. A bit can have only one of two values, commonly represented as 0 and 1. In information theory, the gain or loss of information rests on the certainty of whether a bit is one value or the other.

And what about information itself? One of my favorite definitions is that “information is what allows us to confidently make a selection from a set of given or implied alternatives.”

Bringing this all together, what do you see when you look at a flash drive? I see not gigabytes but questions, hundreds of billions of them all asking “Yes or No?” “Zero or One?” with the answers giving shape to words, images, or anything you wish to communicate against a backdrop of every alternative message possible. That’s the fundamental nature of the device, a far more interesting perspective that begs further thinking about meaning, function, and purpose.

As much as the world has changed technologically in the preceding years, decades and centuries, this much has not: A little wonder goes a long way.

Jeremy BurtonComment