Getting Into It

Well, it’s been awhile. Not intentionally, mind you, but now’s not the time for excuses.

At any rate, here we are. Things have happened since we last spoke. Steve Jobs resigned, the iPhone 5 is coming soon, Amazon is most likely releasing a tablet, the TouchPad was released and immediately shanked, and lots of other things. More talk about cloud services, more talk about music services, more talk about books, more talk about movies. Netflix took one on the jaw when they lost the Starz library, and maybe they’re going to lose out to Amazon. Who knows?

Writing about all this stuff after being away for so long is surreal. I feel like there was a time in the tech world when moves like these would take place over years. Years, folks. Now…we’re talking weeks, months. This is insane. There are ideas out there, ideas that are growing quickly and gaining steam, and there’s more diversification of mobile operating systems that people are seeing and buying into, but I think it all represents, as crazy as it sounds, a type of stagnation.

Granted, things are moving quickly, they’re hot now, but I think the reason for all of this comes down to a sort of scrambling to figure out where the consumer is going, trying to predict what the market is going to decide is “the best” experience, or integrated operating system, or whatever. We’re seeing Android innovating on lots of fronts, but people are frustrated by the sloppy and inconsistent UX, we’re seeing iOS finding more stability and fleshing out features that people have been craving, adding even more value to the devices they’re already carrying around on a daily basis, but still lacking that special “kick” that really ties it all together. WebOS…well, I was hopeful for WebOS. Then it died. I had a whole article written, even, which is totally irrelevant now. Oh well.

With all this getting kicked around and changing so rapidly, I want to touch on some changes I think are coming down the pipe for iOS, and what I’m hopeful for in that space, as well. That will all come later this week. For now, enjoy the weather, throw on a scarf, and watch the last few sunsets the season has to offer.

Close Encounters of the HiFi Kind

Bust out your b-boy skillzOne of the most exciting things about being a technophile is the reactions I get to experience from friends and family members regarding new technology and its place in their lives. For some members of my immediate family, technology is something to be shunned or, at best, regarded cautiously. The intersection between life and technology seldom occurs and, when it does, the intersection is typically relegated to the living room TV or family computer for just a few moments.

The general distrust of technology is not unique to my family, however. As phones have increasingly taken on more characteristics of computers, many of my friends have opted for lower-tech, less-capable devices that offer the illusion of simplicity and security1. There seems to be a general trend, however, towards devices that are intentionally simpler or less advanced than the iPhones and Androids of today. This seems to go hand-in-hand with a trend that was very prevalent in the early 90s in consumer electronics: blinky things.

This isn’t a joke or intended to poke fun at things that blink and glow, it’s an observation about the level of interaction that most people have with their technology, and the way that technology is designed today vs. twenty years ago. Currently, almost everything we see in the mainstream consumer electronics space is being geared towards user-friendliness and maximum functionality. We see device after device being introduced into the marketplace with the same glass face, the same general form factors, the same trend away from confusing buttons and towards devices that shift and morph as the user invokes different commands and demands different functionality from the device.

A close friend of mine was discussing his experiences in Japan in the early 1990s when Japan was leading the world in technological advancements in the consumer electronics space. His defining memory of the era was of blinking lights. He told me about his friends who would go shopping for electronics, looking expressly for the devices and gadgets that had the most blinky lights on them. Contrast to the devices of today, which have few, if any, lights at all (save for the screen).

I believe that this shift in the visual appearance of devices also has a great deal to do with the intended usage of devices and the sea change we see occurring in mainstream media in general. In a recent discussion I had (referenced here as well), I argued that media consumption is moving away from the all-you-can-eat huge cable bills and more towards selective, pay-for-what-you-watch models. This means that people have to go out and find what they want to watch in order to actually watch anything, which means that the consumption of media must be intentional. This is incredibly important when we look at how these new fit into our lives.

My father picked up an iPad recently (it was off, but plugged in and charging) and said something interesting. “How do you know it’s charging?” he asked. “There’s nothing blinking on here.” He’s right, of course, but that simple statement illustrates the difference between current-gen devices and last-gen technology. In previous generations of electronics, devices were ambient, non-interactive, and representative. The stereo represented music, the typewriter represented writing. These gadgets were single-function, specialized devices. They were large and expensive, and sometimes required some sort of technical training in order to learn how to operate them. The trend in recent years, however, has been away from single-function devices like stereos, typewriters, and cassette players. The shift has been decidedly towards convergence devices whose role in day-to-day activities is not clearly defined because it is so amorphous.

In the early 90s, a person could glance over at his or her stereo and be greeted by an array of lights and digits that portrayed all sorts of information which varied by model and type of stereo. This information, however, was specific to the gadget and usage case thereof. In that scenario, a person would have any number of different devices to display very specific pieces of information. Thermometers, clocks, typewriters, stereos, and more have all been replaced by multi-function devices that are becoming more and more ubiquitous, and some people feel threatened by that. Gone are the blinkenlights, gone is the specialized knowledge required to operate the machinery, gone is the sense of self that is then inevitably tied to the gadget. Instead, we see inherently mutable devices with no single purpose taking center stage. Suddenly all the gadgets that people have been hoarding over the years are rendered useless or unnecessary, and the owner of said devices suffers a bit of an identity crisis. Should we decide to keep the devices, we clutter our lives with junk. Should we decide to pitch them, we admit defeat to the tides of change.

This, however is not as bad as it may sound. A shift away from clearly defined objects means that our sense of self becomes tied to ideas instead, tied to our interactions with technology, not the technology itself. We come to think more critically, more abstractly. What are we looking for? How do we find the information we seek? Is this information important? How should we process and/or internalize this information?

Ultimately, a shift in the type of technologies that our lives revolve around signals a shift in our self-awareness. When you think about it, another analogy comes to mind, one that I discussed recently vis à vis the transition Apple is making with their new data center.

Let’s get existential, shall we? Let’s get right into it. Here it is: our sense of self, our identity, by being disassociated from things, now lives…wait for it…”in the cloud.”

Bet you thought you’d never see the day, huh?

1 One of the most often-heard arguments I have heard from my paranoid friends/family members is “What if you lose your phone?” or “What if someone steals your phone?” I actually faced that exact scenario recently and discovered some very interesting things about security and vulnerability that will undoubtedly raise some eyebrows. I’ll describe that story in detail soon.

Here’s to the Rebel.

You know what I’m most hopeful for?

Not the iPad 2 or some MobileMe revamp.

I hope that Steve is OK.  He’s one of the main reasons I’m writing today, and I hope he gets better so I can tell him how much of a difference he’s made in my life.

Si tu n’étais pas là

My friend’s mom passed away recently. She was a beautiful lady, a ray of sunshine for all who knew her. I’m having a difficult time coming to terms with this, for some reason, mostly because it seems like she was so young, had so much left to give. Instead of being sad, though, I wanted to do something different. I want to share who she was to me, how she touched my life. Some people ask me sometimes how I am who I am, and part of it is because of what she taught me when I was younger.

Dear Mom,

It’s been awhile since we’ve talked, but I can still remember your laugh, your smile, and so many of the things you’ve taught me. I remember being scared to come to your house at first, because I didn’t know if you’d like me. I remember the dogs, the laughing as they barked at me, jumped on me, their paws frantically scratching on the wood and tile. There were hugs, smiles; never was there judgement. I remember countless nights spent on your couch, watching movies. Sometimes you’d wash the dishes or you’d be on the computer, but you’d always be close by. Laundry was a given. I remember trying to cook on your stove. Sancocho, boiled chicken, ginger tea when we were sick. You always hugged me, brought me into your heart. Christmas in Grayslake with your crazy presents, laughing until my sides hurt and I needed an inhaler to keep my lungs open but never wanted one because who cares when it feels so good? The memories are too many, it seems like I can never remember anything until it hurts…but again…who cares when it feels this good? Graham died, and Rachel cried so much, but you were gentle, I know. You loved him. You loved all your kids, those with two legs and with four. You loved your Rupi-bon, your Buddy, your little girls; I feel so lucky to have been your Paulywog. Years passed, mom, and you never stopped caring, never stopped smiling, never stopped trying to calm the dogs down when I walked through the door, still nervous because everyone there meant so much to me. You taught me how to peel an orange (to which you could only remark, incredulously, “You suck” in that way that only you could say it that made me feel so warm), how to make dulce de leche, to care about the simple things. High school dances, pictures in front of the fireplace. You cared for me so much, and I don’t even know why. You were excited when I came, excited for me to be there. Why? I never understood it, but it didn’t matter. You were always there. I passed by your house a million times, back and forth from school, from martial arts, from becoming a better me. The stable. Oh man, the stable. You put me on a horse there, laughed at me as I rode because I was so awkward. Just once, but that was all I needed. Maybe riding wasn’t my thing, but you loved me just the same. Years, mom, years. So long. And I miss you now. I hadn’t seen you in a while, and now I won’t, but I can still hear your voice, the squeals and laughter, I can hear it all so clearly. I can remember your tiny office where you did your work. God when will the memories stop? I hope never. Even if it hurts just a little bit for the rest of my life, I’ll love it, because who cares when it feels this good? You daughter, a beautiful, radiant soul. What can I say about her? She lives with your love, your beauty. I hope you know that when I see her, I see you too. I see all the things you wanted for me, all the things you want for the the world. She tries so hard and yet lives with your grace effortlessly. You did good, mom. You created something beautiful and gave the world a gift. I can’t hold you anymore, so I hope that when I hold her, you feel it too. I hope you feel the love you gave me. I hope that when you look out from the eyes of the horses and dogs and people you’ve loved, you see a world made more beautiful, more peaceful, more whole because they’re paying it forward. I’ll never stop missing you, but I’ll always hear your voice and remember that I’m your Paulywog, and I’ll take another step forward. Thank you, mom. I love you.