Don’t Call That a Gadget!

By Will Smith

We're living in the midst of a technological revolution, powered by amazing devices that were unimaginable just a few years ago. Embrace that!

I’ve never really liked the word gadget. You know the thing in your pocket, that smartphone? It’s not a gadget. Neither is your laptop or your eBook reader or your home server or your gaming console. All these things are commonly referred to as gadgets, but that word, gadget, is just a way that non-technical folk trivialize the impact that technology has on all of our lives. I can’t state this strongly enough—we live in an age of wonder powered by an astounding technological revolution. Calling these devices gadgets really sells them short. These are the devices that will power our future.       

A helicopter hat? Undeniably a gadget. Your iPhone? Not so much. 

Louis CK) it was 1985, and I was ten years old. At that time a state-of-the-art PC cost $3000, had less than 1MB of memory, no hard drive, and ran at around 10MHz. My house had two phones—wired, of course—one was in my parent’s bedroom and one was in the kitchen. We didn’t have an answering machine, and frankly, it was pretty annoying when I called someone who did. We watched TV shows beamed to us using terrestrial, over-the-air signals. We lived outside the area served by cable, and my parents wouldn’t invest in a satellite dish for a couple more years—oh, and when they did, it was a 9-foot dish that had to be aimed at different satellites to switch channels. At that time, the most advanced piece of technology in the house was probably the microwave oven, or maybe the TI-99/4A that Dad bought from the school board. We hadn’t heard of the Internet, flat screen TVs were something from science-fiction movies, and the best way to get a crisp picture at home was to hang some aluminum foil off of the bunny ears. For all intents and purposes, 1985 was the dark ages.

If I were to bring my 10-year-old self to the present day, and show him the iPhone 3Gs that I take for granted every day, he’d be astonished. To a kid who wouldn’t see his first GameBoy for another four years, the iPhone must look too good to be true—like magic or a prop from Logan’s Run or 2001. With a high-speed connection to the Internet, a color LCD that has about the same resolution as a 1985-era TV, and ability to store and play thousands of songs plus movies and TV shows would have been unimaginable to all but the most breathy futurist in 1985. The iPhone is just one of the many quantum technological leaps forward that we’ve witnessed in the last 25 years—there have been plenty of others: the original Pentium and Pentium 2, Windows 95, the rise of TCP/IP, ubiquitous broadband (first wired, then wireless), the development of multi-core processors, the rise and maturation of 3D graphics, Windows XP, OS X, streaming video, cheap CMOS-based camera sensors, incredible video and audio compression, the increase in storage capacity and speed, etc. The upshot is that even one or two of these technological revolutions would have had a major impact. Taken together though, they’ve allowed us to build devices that someone as recently as 25 years ago might think of as magical.

So that’s why the word gadget pisses me off. The very definition of gadget “a small mechanical or electronic device with a practical use, but often thought of as a novelty” trivializes the impact these devices have made on our lives. Is your smartphone a novelty? What about your Kindle—you know, the thing that allows you to buy and download virtually any of hundreds of thousands of books instantly, over the air? Do you remember going to the video rental store to rent a movie? That’s right, I don’t either, because I haven’t been to a video rental store in 5 years. Did you ever drive all over town looking for something? It’s easier to buy it from Amazon and it will be delivered to your home tomorrow. What about maps? Do you miss asking for directions? What about waiting in lines? Whether it’s printing my movie tickets and boarding passes at home, or the fact that I can use my phone to schedule my next Space Mountain ride without waiting in line, it’s all awesome.

And, even more amazing is that the pace of innovation is increasing at an ever faster rate, which is making it increasingly difficult to imagine where we’ll be in five or ten years, much less 25. I don’t have a window to the future, so I’m only certain of a few things. I’m reasonably sure that the advancements we’ll see over the next quarter-century will make the last 25 years seem insignificant in comparison. And I’m pretty sure that there’s no way we can predict what technology will look like in 2035, despite what the kids at Wired say about us entering an age of ubiquity.

There is one thing that I can say with absolute certainty. While there will be “gadgets” and “gizmos” 25 years from now, the revolution will not be powered by novelty devices. It will be powered by technological improvements that affect everything about our lives and our society. I’m not going to trivialize the revolution by calling these devices gadgets, and I hope you won’t either. I’m here to talk about the future. Want to come along?