I had a chat with a very interesting person today, kind of out of the blue. I’d reached out to them, not expecting much of a response, but a few weeks later we’d found time to talk, and spent an hour or so running the gamut of my favourite areas of technology, all the way from SoCs, to GPUs, VR, and more. I’ve been thinking about the discussion ever since, including how I got to be in a position where I could talk to someone about such a wide range of things, a total stranger no less, and be on common ground.

Reading helps a lot, especially with the wealth of places to go online to immerse yourself in technology news, research and discussion of all kinds, no matter what you’re interested in. If you want to bring yourself up to speed on a given piece of technology, even if it’s niche, I guarantee it’s not too much further than a Google search away.

But reading only gets you so far, and there’s no substitute for getting your hands dirty in a great many cases, especially when it comes to the baked-in nuance and understanding that underpins more complex technologies. I recently wanted to know how a certain bit of a certain GPU worked, for example, and I couldn’t until I’d learned how a certain programming language and API worked, and then used them both to ask the GPU certain questions. I couldn’t have worked it out just from reading alone.

Maybe I’m just rationalising having spent a ridiculous amount of money on bits of technology over the years, but in the areas I’m most enthusiastic about, it’s because I like to immerse myself in whatever it is I’m interested in, and that means buying something most of the time. Most of the time it plays out in my favour. A company will announce a new product line which takes a crack at productising a new piece of technology, either aimed at early adopters — I’m thinking of the recent wave of VR HMDs here — or the the true mass market.

It often results in trying out something I don’t think could work, or that I don’t think I’d really enjoy using or having, but that I want to experience anyway. I could have taken my Apple Watch off any number of times since I got it, and put it in a drawer, and been no worse off in life as a result, but I’ve learned something about wearable computing by having it, and now I think I’ll have a smart watch for the long foreseeable future. Maybe not an Apple one, but I’m bought into the general concept and currently Apple does it best.

I’ve got an Amazon Echo — 3 of them in fact, and they’re not even out here in the UK yet — because I want to understand how it works, experience using it properly in more than just one room, and think of how it could help me in life, and how I could maybe improve it in the future. It’s such a great piece of technology that I’m now writing software for it that I think could be really great as a general solution to a whole class of “talk to your computer” problems. I couldn’t have done any of that by just reading about it, or hearing other people talk about it. Alexa’s best and worst bits can only be figured out by talking to her.

The Oculus Rift is another good example. I hate PC gaming with a passion, and nothing that’s happened to change the overall experience of PC gaming in any way, in the last decade or more, has done anything to dissuade me of that. Yet I have an Oculus Rift to figure out what this first wave of VR is like, and understand where it’s going to go in the future.

The feedback from wearing it, even just for the first ten minutes after unboxing it, did more to shape my understanding of modern VR than anything I’ve read about it since it first showed up on Kickstarter, and that’s having used the Rift DK1 and DK2 at length in the interim, before the recently released CV1. There’s no substitute — especially with something as humanly tactile as head-mounted VR — to looking at it with your own eyes, having put it on with your own hands, after having unboxed it and set it up yourself.

So by experiencing lots of different technologies first hand, I get a good feel for how they’re potentially interconnected in different ways. I think that’s the mark of a good technologist. Not just someone who reads a lot about it, but who sincerely tries it out to really understand the good points, flaws, shortcomings and promise, especially with new technology.

Maybe I’m just the guy that blows too much of his money on stupid toys. That’s undoubtedly true, but the experience doing so lets me think about and understand technology in a way that I don’t think I could have gleaned any other way, and it helped me immensely to talk to the person earlier on a shared level, where we both drew on first hand experience and knowledge that neither of us could have gained any other way than by using technology.

New technology is one of my great loves, and I enjoy being a technologist as a result.