LEDs with Magical Powers

June 4, 2008

The magical power of LEDs induces in the hearts and minds of engineers and the technically minded an unequivocal knowledge: The product needs to have LEDs. The understanding of this truth arises at a deep, almost emotional level in ones being and develops into, at the cognitive level, an unshakable axiom. Few will notice that they have become gripped by a mystical alien force but all have experienced it.

The pressure of this knowledge that the LEDs are needed is all but irresistible. A weaker engineer will simply add LEDs without much thought. But in a stronger, more disciplined engineer it can lead to difficulties brought about by a cognitive dissonance between the magical knowledge on the on hand and, on the other, the widely held belief that a product’s features ought to bear up to rational justification.

The uses of LEDs that we see in the products that surround us are all examples of the various resolutions of this cognitive dissonance. Occasionally an actually useful function can be found – a rare and happy outcome. Sometimes the designer seems to have accepted ornamentation as sufficient excuse. But the more common outcome is a contrivance of utility. On the one hand it can be a plainly pathetic apology for function, as exemplified by the entire category of “debugging by LEDs” applications (see diagram).Modem LEDs At the other extreme it can be a truly brilliant contrivance that succeeds in creating the illusion of a purpose; an outcome that reflects an uncommon creative talent of the designer. Nevertheless it remains a contrivance – a fig leaf concealing an ineffable.

In organizations the cognitive dissonance can become collective. The scenario is not unfamiliar: certain stakeholders advocating utility, others hiding behind tradition (i.e. standards) but none challenging the authority of the magical truth that the LEDs are needed. The time spent searching for a compromise acceptable to all can run into years.

And who has not experienced the classic cop-out of a hardware designer who, unable to find a plausible pretext on his own, passes the buck by placing the LEDs under software control? It is in this situation that it has been know to happen that a lowly programmer might inadvertently utter the taboo question “What are these LEDs supposed to be for?”

You may wonder but you may not ask.

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