Technology is Not Always Progress

While I enjoy the benefits that technology brings to my life (like WordPress), I laugh lowly at the manic energies that consume it, and watch in morbid fascination some of the ideas that spring forth from it.

On paper, the Internet of Things (IOT) sounds interesting. Think of the benefits of a connected refrigerator. Imagine all the devices in your house talking to each other! Wouldn’t it be great if your car could inform your smartphone that an oil change was necessary? Again, on paper, this world of Tom Swift meets Richy Rich sounds great and seems like it would bring forth a new world of leisure.

However, only those who do not know history expect technology to deliver this time. Consult ads from the 1950’s to contrast and compare. Then, refrigerators were new. So were washing machines and dryers. They too promised a new life of leisure. Did they deliver? No. People just raised their lifestyle expectations and filled in that leisure time. Then what happened when the new device broke?

Two approaches prevailed. Either the device was designed so well that it hardly ever needed major repairs (e.g Maytag), or it was designed so that the user could service some parts of it (like televisions). Both of these trends continued up until the middle 2000’s (early computers, especially the Apple II, were designed to be user-serviceable and expandable). With the domination of microelectronics, the second approach is largely dead, and the best that people can do is slap the TV in hopes of making it work again.

Back to the first model. When the new-fangled device needed service, it was time for an expensive repair call from the refrigerator, the dryer, or the A/C guy. Any technology that is not drop-dead simple and user-serviceable incurs either a maintenance cost, or the cost of replacing the device. This is an unavoidable aspect of technology as items are rarely designed to last; they are usually designed to be replaced.

Given how quickly technology advances and the problems communication between devices can cause, is it really a good idea to try to force consumer appliances into the quick-burn disposable tech cycle? Will people drop $2000 on a new fridge every three years? Of course not. Will people upgrade just because their fridge no longer talks to their phone? Of course not. This is due to an overlooked facet of human psychology: big objects should last.

The appliance manufacturers are stuck with this unchanging aspect of human perception. A refrigerator is costly to build and thus has a high price tag. It is large. It is difficult to install and it doesn’t do much but keep food cold and make ice. People pay for it to do those things and do those things well. Thus, a large upfront expenditure buys silent reliability; additional features cannot compromise the main functionality, and while nice, they are relatively unimportant.

In another sense, appliances are largely technologically mature. They are specialized, simple, and drop-dead reliable. Isn’t that what people want out of devices? Things that offload tasks, do them without interruption, and do them day-in and day-out with little maintenance involved? At home at least, people seek rest, not constant interruption or stimulus.

The spaztical loggorheac world of tiny things chattering at each other really is fundamentally at odds with what people need and want in most devices. It is a juvenile fascination that serves no purpose except to fascinate those who can be fascinated with the mere existence of a thing instead of its purpose. This approach is also at odds with the purpose of technology – to make things easier for people; how does upgrading more and more things at faster and faster cycles improve my life at all? It just makes me another frantic hyperventilating tech kid collecting the latest shiny shiny. This improves the lives of product makers, for it provides perpetual employment for technological meth addicts, but product owners it leaves frazzled, cash-strapped, and burnt. This is selfish technology, whereas design inculcates purpose. Design is selfless.

What if the connected pieces fail or are subverted? Nobody ever mentions that when discussing the utopia promised by technology. Having your computer hacked, when all you have is one computer, is bad news. Having your fridge, your TV, and your computer hacked is a real problem – possibly life-threatening, if you are snowed in. So often technology upgrades are not upgrading anything, but delivering flash and gee-whiz frissions at the risk of making us exponentially more vulnerable.

The IOT among other so-called advances (ahem, Twitter) are roads to side-shows. They don’t better the lives of their users. They stress them out. Shouldn’t things just work? Shouldn’t things be reliable and dependable? I don’t want to have to worry about whether my icebox router is working or not. This is not enabling; it is draining. It requires more interruption, more maintenance, more attention, more mindfulness, when the device should relieve my burdens so that I can do something more interesting. The need is for silent butlers, not loquacious page boys.

The future will include such things as it always does and always will, but such things are not the drivers of betterment. In the future, we will not all be wearing Google Glass, for instance, because privacy still matters. How could Google, which has quite a bit of money, get something so fundamentally wrong? Again, many tech people have misunderstood human nature, because being outliers themselves, they have confused their fetishes for the normal desires of everyman. The two could not be more dissimilar, and that is why those who get human psychology and technology end up making great products – products that last, that are accepted, and which better our lives. Those who don’t, create distractions.

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3 Responses to Technology is Not Always Progress

  1. PapaMAS says:

    Outstanding post! This article crystallizes and summarizes my own thinking on the directions technology has been moving in the last couple of decades. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. I wondered why someone would want their toaster talking to their refrigerator, and why they thought it was so cool that they should try to force everyone else to have the same. I imagine to the refrigerator manufacturers it is a way to distinguish their products from someone else’s – an added “cool” factor for a prosaic item.


  2. This is exactly like mobile phones. I worked in the business from 96-2010, and, they were very much designed for planned obsolescence past 1998. Before then they were made to last. Manufacturers crowed about how durable and long lasting they would be. One even said it would last 15 years. Motorola used polycarbonate and no wires. Then, everything changed. You can thank Sears and Radio Shack, which wanted cheap cell phones. Then, the cost of service came down, and competition came, and providers wanted people locked in.


  3. Pingback: The Underside of Technology | The Quiet Towers

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