One 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.