Thursday, October 30, 2014

Novelty versus Progress

Good essay on technology:
Consider something relatively straightforward, like a multi-touch interface on your closet door that allows you to easily browse and experiment with your wardrobe, offering suggestions based on prior behavior, your upcoming schedule and the weather in the locations where you are expected throughout the day. Or a car that, as it makes real-time navigational adjustments in order to compensate for traffic anomalies, also lets your co-workers know that you will be a few minutes late, and even takes the liberty of postponing the delivery of your regular triple-shot, lactose-free, synthetic vegan latte. There’s very little about these types of scenarios that isn’t entirely possible right now using technology that either already exists, or that could be developed relatively easily. So if the future is possible today, why is it still the future?

I believe there are two primary reasons. The first is a decidedly inconvenient fact that futurists, pundits and science fiction writers have a tendency to ignore: Technology isn’t so much about what’s possible as it is about what’s profitable. The primary reason we haven’t landed a human on Mars yet has less to do with the technical challenges of the undertaking, and far more to do with the costs associated with solving them. And the only reason the entire sum of human knowledge and scientific, artistic and cultural endeavor isn’t instantly available at every single person’s fingertips anywhere on the planet isn’t because we can’t figure out how to do it; it’s because we haven’t yet figured out the business models to support it. Technology and economics are so tightly intertwined, in fact, that it hardly even makes sense to consider them in isolation.

The second reason is the seemingly perpetual refusal of devices to play together nicely, or interoperate. Considering how much we still depend on sneakernets, cables and email attachments for something as simple as data dissemination, it will probably be a while before every single one of our devices is perpetually harmonized in a ceaseless chorus of digital kumbaya. Before our computers, phones, tablets, jewelry, accessories, appliances, cars, medical sensors, etc., can come together to form our own personal Voltrons, they all have to be able to detect each other’s presence, speak the same languages, and leverage the same services.

The two reasons I’ve just described as to why the future remains as such — profit motive and device isolation — are obviously not entirely unrelated. In fact, they could be considered two sides of the same Bitcoin. However, there’s still value in examining each individually before bringing them together into a unified theory of technological evolution.
And this is a good point:
I’ve come to the conclusion over the last few years that it’s far too easy to confuse novelty with technological and cultural progress, and nothing in my lifetime has made that more clear than smartphones. It used to be that computers and devices were platforms — hardware and software stacks on top of which third-party solutions were meant to be built. Now, many devices and platforms are becoming much more like appliances, and applications feel more like marginally tolerated, value-add extensions... let’s consider a few other attributes of appliances: They typically only do what their manufacture intends; they are the very paragons of planned obsolescence; and they generally operate either entirely in isolation, or are typically only compatible with hardware or services from the same manufacturer.

The reality is that novelty, and both technological and cultural progress, are only loosely related. Novelty is usually about interesting, creative or fun new products and services. It’s about iterative progress like eking out a few more minutes of battery life, or shaving off fractions of millimeters or grams, or introducing new colors or alternating between beveled and rounded edges. But true technological and cultural progress is about something much bigger and far more profound: the integration of disparate technologies and services into solutions that are far greater than the sum of their parts.

Progress is about increasing access to information and media as opposed to imposing artificial restrictions and draconian policies; it’s about empowering the world to do more than just shop more conveniently, or inadvertently disclose more highly targetable bits of personal information; it’s about trusting your customers to do the right thing, providing real and tangible value, and holding yourself accountable by giving all the stakeholders in your business the ability to walk away at any moment...
The future is disappearing: How humanity is falling short of its grand technological promise  (Salon)

1 comment:

  1. If you read google news, science and technology each have their own, unrelated sections. Most of the technology section stories seem to be about smart phones. Not really inspiring stuff- except maybe to inspire you to go out and buy the latest phone.

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