The Slippery Technological Slope
The problem with technology is that there is just so much of it. I know that sort of sounds like ancient Egyptians complaining about the invention of the wheel. How were they going to get anything done with kids whizzing about in those new fangled chariots at 15 mph! But seriously, technology is moving faster than Bangkok’s red light district. We are buying hardware like it’s going out of fashion and mainlining all that’s digital straight into our brains. We ride sinusoidal waves of mental titillation, reaching for those highs to pull us out of the lows. We are ADHD bunnies with integrated-circuit-ears, selfie-stick-tails and a small-god complex.
Technology is as addictive as cocaine. Once you get hooked, it’s incredibly hard to stop. Forget about stopping, it’s a struggle just to keep up! It’s not so much a technological bandwagon as a slope. A very, very slippery slope.
I remember when buying technology was an investment. You get a computer or a mobile phone and it will last you years or until you sell it off. Now, when you buy a smartphone, it is out-dated by the time you get out of the store. Laptops are being churned out as fast as cheeseburgers and are only half as tasty. There are so many apps out there that you have apps that help you find other apps.
Tech is not an investment anymore, it is a subscription. You have got to keep paying and keep upgrading to stay plugged into the system, and not being plugged in is a terrible thing. That’s what Apple essentially did when it announced its new iPhone upgrade plan. They will make sure you stay one of the cool kids as long as you keep filling their bank. Apple doesn’t like sharing very much. The other smartphone companies could not let this slide of course. Samsung is rumoured to start offering their own upgrade plan so that you can make Samsung rich instead of Apple to access the same sort of thing essentially.
I still remember my first portable radio. It was black, the size of a brick with an antenna twice as long and came with a headphone jack! It was the coolest thing ever and I used it for years. Then came my two-speaker cassette/CD player, which I also used for years. There was no pressure to upgrade or change brands. You had it, you listened to it till it broke years later, then you got a new one. That was it. Then came the cassette player Walkman, which gave way to the CD player Walkman. Then came a multitude of Mp3 players. That too was fine, I suppose. There were tons of brands, they were easy to use and compatible with everything. You plugged into your PC, copied your music onto the device and you were done.
Then came Apple with their iPod. That had the same effect on the Mp3 player market as that hypothetical meteor had on the dinosaurs. It is an apt metaphor in a way. The iPod was so much more modern compared to all the ‘dinosaurs’ there were at the time. But that was not what killed off the competitors. Sure the iPod was better, but it wasn’t that the competitors couldn’t catch up. They could, and they did. The problem was the spirit, the zeitgeist that Apple had a stranglehold on. You didn’t buy an iPod just for the music. You bought it to subscribe to the story Apple was selling. A short while later, Apple had enough muscle to carve up the music industry and serve it to you on a platter with a side of organic salad and a mug of craft beer. And after all of that, what does Apple do? It kills off the iPod. The ecosystem is still alive and thriving, however, the iPod was just another casualty of the unnatural selection that is the world of tech. Or maybe it is just Darwinian evolution in a Moore’s Law kind of ecosystem, and the iPod has morphed into something else.
The problem with this kind of technological growth is that it is an *Ouroboros. To compete with each other and to increase profit margins, tech companies create more and more compelling reasons for consumers to consume. This instills a hunger in people for new things. They demand something more interesting, something more than what their contemporaries have, something to excite them. This in turn means the companies need to keep putting out “one more thing” which in turn increases the hunger for that one thing. The snake is eating its own tail and there is only so much tail to go around (see what I did there?). It’s a vicious cycle that is stifling creativity.
The last great consumer innovations were the iPhone and iPad. It changed everything and dragged the future into our hands. Now we have touch screens in everything from our cars to our TVs and our watches, and apps that make things so much accessible and so much more interactive. But since then nothing has really changed. The iPhone was a pen in the world of pencils, but now all we are doing is making better pens. Every new phone model is an incremental change on the one before it. More processing power, bigger screens, better cameras, and a lower price is all they have to offer. It doesn’t even matter much what phone you buy now. Any of the major brands are pretty much alike. Look, I have drawn a helpful graph to illustrate it.
There comes a point where it just doesn’t matter anymore. It is called the “Ah-f**k-it” point. It’s scientific. You had the iPad, then you got a smaller iPad, now you have a bigger iPad. With a pencil. It really doesn’t make that much of a difference which one you get.
This whole article may sound like an old man whining about technology. But it’s not. I have only one grey nose hair. I am not that old. The reality is that we are trapping ourselves in a cycle. Too many incremental upgrades create too many options leading to the Paradox of Choice. We are not looking far enough ahead.
Since the iPhone, real technological advancement has not been in the smartphone or computing industry but rather in space and in electric cars. Elon Musk has done far more for humanity with Tesla and SpaceX than any of the tech giants focused on their own profit margins combined. Google is buying up robotics companies like there is no tomorrow, and testing self-driving cars. They are doing what some of the great inventors did decades ago, they are trying out new, supposedly impossible things.
We really are not focusing far enough ahead. Electric cars will wean the world off its dependence on fossil fuels, and cut global warming. What powers the future needs to be clean energy. We are running out of the other kind. SpaceX is trying to open up other worlds for humankind, just in case we keep messing up this one. We need to be looking at creating value for society and not just entertainment and excitement. We need to be trying out crazy, big ideas and not caring whether the stock market approves.
The problem with technology is us. We are too focused on our palms when our imagination wants to reach for the stars.