The shortest path between two points is a gadget

My husband got an apple corer as a Chanukah present from my sister. This is nothing high-tech — a simple plastic circle with metal blades that you push down over the apple and voila! Apple slices. But he was delighted. He rushed into the kitchen to core me an apple.

And it was fine. It was tasty. It was nicely cored and sliced. But I thought, Why do we need this? I’m perfectly happy slicing my own apples. 

Riddle: What do these two orange objects have in common? / Photo by Ilana DeBare

And this was just a simple little human-powered gadget — it didn’t plug in, didn’t beep or blink, didn’t burn fossil fuels or contribute to global warming or require a log-in and a password. But still, I started thinking — as I spun the salad for dinner in my plastic salad spinner — why do we want all these gadgets?

This is similar to a riff goes through my head when I’m putting away dishes. It’s only twenty feet from the dishwasher to the dining room hutch where we store our china, but I always feel a compulsion to do it in as few trips as possible. I stack salad plates on top of dinner plates, I balance beer glasses on top of soup bowls. For what — to save 10 calories of walking energy?

I guess we human beings are hard-wired to conserve effort and energy. It must go back to our African savannah or European ice age days, when food was scarce and starvation was a constant threat and you didn’t want to burn any more calories than necessary. And certainly there are times when saving effort makes sense. If I were building a stone wall or tilling a rocky field, I would damn sure want to domesticate a horse or invent the wheel.

But today? To my knowledge, no one in my household is facing starvation. No one is physically overworked. In fact, the opposite is true on both counts: We’re all perpetually fighting too much weight and too little activity.

Today it’s better for most of us to take the stairs rather than the elevator. We’re healthier if we eat less and move more. Those hard-wired drives to grab every ounce of fatty food and avoid all unnecessary exertion are no longer helpful — they’re harmful.

But still, I stack those salad plates to save a trip into the dining room. My husband beams at the ability to core an apple with one firm shove rather than twelve little slicing motions.

We have as many gadgets in our kitchen as any good yuppie. How much of why we buy them is mindless consumption (The Next New Thing!), how much is intellectual appreciation of an ingenious solution or elegant design, how much is this primordial drive to do less work?

And it’s not just gadgets. After spinning my salad in the salad spinner, I reached for some Satsuma oranges to add to it.

Now, I love Satsumas. They’re my favorite fruit of all time. I love their tart, juicy taste. I love that they are only available for a few months every winter.

And I also love that they are so easy to eat — the peel comes off as easily as wrapping paper, and pits are rare. There’s no digging your nails into peel that refuses to leave the orange, no juice spurting all over your sleeve, no ragged slices that are missing chunks.

Is my love for Satsumas just a fruit version of the gadget phenomenon?

It used to be that the shortest path between two points was a line.

Today it’s a gadget.

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4 Responses to “The shortest path between two points is a gadget”

  1. Kaveh Says:

    You’re right, Ilana. All too often we fall into ‘saving’ our energy without examination. I am amused at healthy-looking people who drive their big cars round and round in parking lots in order to avoid parking three rows over where there’s plenty of space. Later that day, I imagine, they go to a gym and walk or jog in place indoors on a treadmill. Well…?!

    But I suspect there’s another factor (other than saving energy) also at play in these reflexive gadget loving, step saving acts, like your husband’s delight in the apple-corer or your heaping of dishes on your way to the hutch. It’s the desire to save TIME, I think, the instinctive awareness of its limited nature for us mortals. Wow, eight apple slices with ONE quick push, a few clicks and taps on a keyboard to buy something instead of going to the store etc. Saving time is a motive that’s harder to criticize.

    With much of these personal energy/time saving devices being resource hungry, such as cars, washing machines, dishwashers etc. and with fossil fuels being dirty and limited, hopefully some of the newer gadgets (computers, solar cells etc) will save planetary energy and help avoid bigger problems.

  2. janleuin Says:

    finally responding…your post made me so nostalgic as I have my dad’s old pear corer. It’s similar to your apple corer, except that it’s metal (stainless steel?). Many washings have erased the motto once inscribed on it: “All good things come in pears.”

    My dad loved gadgets but I don’t think it was about saving time for him. He was famous for his attention to detail and general persnicketyness. I think that for him, growing up poor during the Depression, having a gadget that only had one particular use represented the height of luxury. In the same way he would buy a very obscure record album (this was of course the age of LP’s) such as an African mass, simply because he might want to listen to it occasionally, and its rarity and obscurity were a big part of its value. It was as close as he and some of the other Depression survivors in our family could get to conspicuous consumption.

    And of course, the pear slicer still works great!

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