Essays & Articles


Gadgets? Who, me? (Misc Magazine)

Misc Magazine liked my essay on “complexity,” so they asked me to write on gadgets. What? To my great surprise, i complied.

Maybe I am a gadget. That would certainly explain a lot of things. A quick search of the internet for the definition of gadget yields two meanings:

  1. A small device that performs or aids a simple task
  2. A small device that appears useful but is often unnecessary or superfluous

Yeah, those sound like me.

But I am not alone. I once estimated that we encounter roughly 20,000 specialized things as we go about our lives, most of these being gadgets. One sleepless night, I wandered my home, and in the attempt to get back to sleep I decided to count.  There were no sheep visible, so I resorted to counting all those glowing red and green lights my stuff emitted at night. My count had long exceeded 100 when the act of counting accomplished its goal, so I quickly retreated back to my bedroom and fell into an immediate dreamless state of beepiness.

Beeps. Yeah, I there are two essential components of gadgetness. Lights and beeps.  Beep, goes one, beep-beep goes another. My gadgets tend only to beep at night, when humans are sleeping. “Beep, beep, beep” goes my dishwasher, letting me know at 3 AM that it has finished the dishes and I can empty it, but hey, no rush. Empty the dishwasher any time I wish. My dishwasher is relaxed about it. And just because it likes me, to help me remember, it will beep as a helpful, friendly reminder every 15 minutes until I do empty it.

Once, when completely out of reading matter, I discovered  our stash of unread appliance instruction manuals, where I discovered that the dishwasher doesn’t have to beep when it is done. I can instruct it not to  beep if I hold down the leftmost button for 1.75 seconds, simultaneously depressing the right two buttons for 2.5 seconds, while crossing my legs and arms. Some day I may try it.

Beeps and lights are synonymous with gadgets. Lights whose purpose is to serve no purpose. Same with beeps. Actually, sometimes the patterning of the flashing lights or beeping beeps can have purpose and meaning, if only you can remember where the gadget manual is located, and where this particular sequence is explained. red flash followed by beep beep beep followed by red flash. Oh, there it is: the batteries in this fire alarm will have to be changed in the next 6 weeks. Thank you for letting me know, at 4 AM. I was going to wake up soon anyway.

To maintain my own gadget status I have taken to carrying around my own light, a small, one battery operated LED flashlight, always in my pocket. I turn it on now and then in kindred spirit to my brother gadgets, but it also works in dark restaurants to read the menus, or to read instruction manuals at 3 AM, especially those printed in small font, in light gray text on a dark grey background. (Am I referring to the manuals or to the menus? Yes, I am.)

I don’t beep, yet, so I guess I am not a full-fledged gadget, but I’m working on it. Oh, maybe my cellphone counts: It beeps a lot. I once spent an entire evening going through every preference-setting place, turning off all sounds, getting rid of all the beeps, so I thought. Hah. They keep happening anyway. It’s like the boot sound of a computer. Every time I get a computer, I spend hours going through its sound controls, getting rid of all its warnings and beepings and tones and stuff, but I never get them all. My Apple computer insists on its branded bong sound when it turns on, even though I bought a special gadget to prevent this from happening. The gadget worked until the next update of the operating system. Hey, imagine that. Gadgets have so many beeps that there are now gadgets whose sole purpose is to fix other gadgets – get rid of the beeps. Gadgets for gadgets.

Microsoft, I am pleased to say, builds the option to shut up the booting sound right into its sound control panel, something I gleefully show to many thankful Windows users. Thank you Microsoft. How did Microsoft change from the enemy into the most consumer-friendly, accessible consumer electronics company?

So hurrah for gadgets. Hurrah for the thousands of them that keep us company, ensure that we are never lonely, never neglected. They continually require our support, proving that our lives have meaning, that we add value to the universe. My life would be empty without my gadgets: gadgets for the kitchen, for my office, my several computers and tablets and smart phones. My gadgets have gadgets. I look forward to a future of bio-mimetic, nano-technologized, embedded prosthesis gadgets. All of them beeping, flashing, requiring attention to be recharged, updated, and their subscriptions renewed. And their passwords changed. Life has a purpose.

And what would I be if I weren’t a gadget? I’d be a nerd, that’s what, nothing I would aspire to. Gadgethood is my dream state, walking about, performing no useful function but appearing useful, flashing my light at random items in the vicinity.


  1. A small device that performs or aids a simple task
  2. A small device that appears useful but is often unnecessary or superfluous

Yeah, that sounds about right.

Don Norman studies, teaches, and practices good design. He is co-founder of the Nielsen Norman group, an IDEO fellow, former VP at Apple and professor. His most recent book is Living with Complexity. He is currently revising Design of Everyday Things to make it relevant for the next 25 years. He lives in Silicon Valley at