Are most new technology products just fashion items?
- 26 February 2014
- From the section Business
A recent encounter I had with Google Glass was not, I must say, very convincing.
You will no doubt have heard about Glass, the computer in a pair of spectacles. It's an attempt to focus on the next wave of computing: the wearable, immersive stuff they were getting all excited about at the vast Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas at the start of the year.
My encounter with Glass was not a showcase event, but real life. I tried it out round a boozy south London dinner table.
An unfair test because nobody was concentrating on using it properly, but fair because random use is when consumer electronics get interesting.
You put on the glasses, adjust them a bit - which is fiddly because you can't quite see what you're doing - and then marvel at the clarity of the tiny screen picture in front of you.
It adds information culled from the internet to your field of view; tech people call this augmenting reality. But to do that interfacing properly (and hands free) you have to either have your brain waves wired into the machine, or be able to talk to it.
At that fairly fundamental threshold, Glass became hugely frustrating. Simple verbal commands addressed to Glass failed to register or were misunderstood.
One or two round-the-table photos were eventually taken, and transferred to people's smartphones. Cute, clever, and clunky. And very frustrating.
Now it is wrong to judge technology by its first iteration. The Apple Newton palmtop computer was a miserable bust 20 years ago, but it turns out to have been a very significant advance in the way people use computers, long before the smartphone, which it kind of heralded.
Now they call it a "prophetic failure". Then they laughed at its feeble attempts to recognise the user's handwriting.
The tech early adopters who are plonking down $1,500 (£900) for a Google Glass device are not ordinary consumers, of course. They want to see how a new interface is going to change the way we use the internet.
They want to start devising apps that will turn Glass and the new interactive watches (and their competitors) into must-have products, because you will be able to do so much with the applications they enable.
They will probably start as highly specialised responses to working in difficult circumstances which demand hands-free communications... in hospital operating theatres and tricky industrial surroundings, for example.
Fun and games and personal communications will come later. But the voice recognition has to work pretty seamlessly to make it all happen.
I don't doubt that at some stage Google Glass or something similar will become part of the ubiquity of computing, the point at which the internet as the electronic nervous system of the world begins to merge with the human nervous system in a very intimate way. But not yet, and maybe not using this sort of display and interaction at all.
My Glass-eyed encounter got me thinking about technology advances in general. Everybody says that change is getting ever faster and that tech is at the heart of economic and social advance.
More and more creative effort is going into less and less. The buzz at the Consumer Electronics Show concentrated on curved screens for smartphones and television tweaks, which produce the next must have device for jaded consumers, but are trivial in terms of innovation.
I am writing this on a plane on a tablet computer, but actually it's not that much of an advance on pen and paper. The futile economy is all around us.
Technology has been turned into a fashion item. The point of a new feature or a new app is churn, not technology advancing. Tech pioneers who changed our world now cater for the fly-by-night fads of consumers.
There are all-night queues of impulsive buyers outside Apple stores when the company unveils its latest iteration of the iPad or the iPhone, with marginal but much heralded improvements to the display.
And the demand for the new product actually produces an observable surge in the US economy as measured by GDP in the month in question, legitimising all this futility in the eyes of those who are only satisfied if things can be "monetised", as the Americans put it. Unmonetised, huge global problems go unresolved or untackled.
Beware of the belief that the technology curve is an inevitable advance for good. More and more economic activity is now derived from things that simply do not matter. Futility beckons.
In the subway in Seoul the other day, everyone, but everyone, was glued to their smartphone.
But look over their shoulders, and those enthralled users are mainly playing games or watching TV, with the action augmented with Twitter type comments and captions littering the screen.
In the words of the New York University professor the late Neil Postman they are "amusing themselves to death".
When television was the latest technology, he put it like this: "We're turning on TV to eat up our lives." Entertainment has moved to centre stage.
It was the poet Wordsworth who wrote of the power of the mind suspended "in vacant or in pensive mood". A vanishing condition as technology crams our waking hours with distraction.
Yet it is in this seemingly empty state of mind when thoughts are mulled over and ideas mature.
It is something vital we are now missing as we embrace the futile economy. The agile thumb is replacing the mind. Trivia rules OK.
Historians tells us that one of the contributory factors to the decline and fall of the Roman Empire was the crippling expense of the state-organised circuses that distracted the populace from the tiresome realities of life in Rome.
I wonder whether we are now embarked on a similar trajectory, in our new futile economy.