What is a Gadget? Defining the clever servants of society

According to the contemporary source of wisdom that elementary students use to write their school reports, a gadget is “a small tool such as a machine that has a particular function, but is often thought of as a novelty. Gadgets are sometimes referred to as gizmos.”

Sticking with Wikipedia, we find some valuable insight into the origin of the word gadget:

It was a 19th century term for a technical item whose precise name one can’t remember.

It was a term popular among sailors and has its earliest known print usage in Robert Brown’s 1886 book Spunyarn and Spindrift: A sailor boy’s log of a voyage out and home in a China tea-clipper.

It might have been coined when Gaget, Gauthier & Cie made a mini version of the Statue of Liberty and named it after their firm.

It could be a derivation of the French gâchette for pieces of a firing mechanism or gagée, a small tool or accessory.

And for the British Royal Flying Corps, it was slang for an invention.

A century later, the gadget became associated with compactness and mobility. In his 1965 essay, “The Great Gizmo,” architecture and design critic Reyner Banham defines it as:

A small self-contained unit of high performance in relation to its size and cost, whose function is to transform some undifferentiated set of circumstances to a condition nearer human desires. The minimum of skills is required in its installation and use, and it is independent of any physical or social infrastructure beyond that by which it may be ordered from a catalogue and delivered to its prospective user. A class of servants to human needs, these clip-on devices, these portable gadgets, have colored American thought and action far more deeply – I suspect – than is commonly understood.

Forget size, simplicity, cost, installation, clip-on, portability and our current use of the word referring to an object that is somehow ‘electronic’. Where Banham is dead on with his definition of a gadget’s is how they transform conditions and colors thoughts.

Like all technologies gadgets are culturally constructed, socially constituted and historically contingent. Because technology is embedded in all human activity, a gadget is the product of us and our place, time and zeitgeist. However much it might be considered a novelty and designed simply to make living more fun or convenient – a characterization which points to an age in which fun and convenience are paramount – a gadget alters the conditions of our lives because using it serves to materialize behaviors that are associated with a need, feeling or condition.

Raising a Tamagotchi makes kids feel sort of parental; using a blender makes us feel faster and more efficient in the kitchen; and roving about with a mobile phone makes us feel more free, independent and, well, mobile. That gadgets like these make us feel more parental, fast, efficient, free speaks to how our shaping of objects, tools and technologies is, in the end, a shaping of our selves, society and values. That inventing, ordering and using them colors us in ways that we like to believe are unique to our time, is born by observation of that most feeling of modern humans, the early adopter.

Witness the early adopter as he parks a chair or sleeping bag outside the Apple store to be first in line to purchase the next iPhone. Here, purchasing is not about the gadget fulfilling an unmet need, as the last version helps achieve the same or similar degree of freedom, independence and mobility. Instead, purchasing is all about the display of ownership or what French philosopher Jean Baudrillard refers to as a social badge of performance. Describing the gadget as “the emblem of post-industrial society,” he writes:

If we can agree that the object of consumption is defined by the relative disappearance of its objective function (as a tool) to the benefit of its function as a sign, and if we can agree that the object of consumption is characterized by a kind of functional uselessness (since what is consumed is precisely something other than the ‘useful’), then the gadget is indeed the truth of the object in consumer society. In this sense, anything can become a gadget; and everything is one, potentially. The definition of the gadget would be its potential uselessness and its ludic combinatory value.

Whether we can agree on these two points is about as unclear as some schools of French philosophy, particularly if we are to debate the use, using, usefulness and uselessness of a gadget. What is clear is that in prioritizing these things in our lives as functional signs, Baudrillard reminds us that all tools, technologies, objects, things, gadgets and gizmos are ultimately ways in which we play with telling others and our selves who we are. Novelty or not, if they happen to save or supplement our physical or mental capabilities, that’s just a bonus on top of every communicative gesture. 

the author

Dr. Morgan Gerard

Dr. Morgan Gerard is the former chief resident storyteller at Idea Couture.