So the other day, the fellas and I were sitting around a table, comparing smartphones. We took great pride in our storage mass and connectivity, and showed off how many pages our app selections occupied. (Okay, beer may have been involved.) But after several minutes, the truth came out: among our millions of apps, none of us ever used more than two or three.
When the iPhone hit the market in 2007, the buzz insisted that we had entered a new phase of human connectivity. Massive quantities of content could cross continents instantaneously; we could video chat, move texts longer than dictionaries, and have global conference calls at the flick of a screen. Yet how often do any of us do these? And how often do we upload YouTube videos of our cats?
Don’t get me wrong. I like having Pandora and Words With Friends on my Android. But the potential implications of advancing smartphone technology remain just that: potential. Although the major corporations roll out their latest releases with great fanfare, actual improvement has been, at best, incremental. As New Yorker blogger Matt Buchanan aptly puts it, Phones Are Boring.
But the problem runs much deeper than phones. My sci-fi buddies may pillory me for publicly stating such blatant heresy, but the promise of technology has fallen flat. Far from creating either the whiz-bang paradise or the bleak dystopia long envisioned by the genre classics, technology has proven mundane. And I think even the people who create the technology have noticed this disappointing trend.
Every so often, big tech companies—Apple, Samsung, Intel—conduct a blockbuster product launch, accompanied by the multimedia pageantry once reserved for car makers and movie studios. Each of them tries to recapture the excitement Steve Jobs notoriously created even for insignificant new advances. News media treat each product launch like a papal inauguration.
But Jobs was a consummate showman. He knew how to anticipate unmet needs, and pitch a product as though it plugged a hole in our lives. His launch extravaganzas for the iPod and iPad, which focused on utility and convenience while showering their figurehead monarch with nigh-divine praise, are textbook examples of smart, forward-thinking business.
We cannot say the same about the new machines rolling out since Jobs’ passing. When the big news surrounding the latest version of the Samsung Galaxy smartphone is that its screen runs 0.03 inches smaller than the prior model, I shrug and return to my beer. When the newest Kindle manages to abolish the QWERTY keyboard, I feel a strong urge to go grab a paper book.
I lay the blame, not on the individuals responsible for the new developments, but on the corporate mindset that has overtaken technology. In 1940, “inventor” was a job category on US Census forms; that field vanished in 1950. The process of creating new tech has fallen into the hands of corporate R&D departments which, with their bottom-line mentality, are notoriously risk-averse.
This results in mere refinements of existing technology. Smartphones merge wireless communications with imprinted circuits for a useful hybrid, but it isn’t really new. The Internet relies on ARPANet technology that has changed only in magnitude since it debuted in 1969. As “development” has edged out “invention” as the motivating factor in technology, the classic jet-age wonder has worn away.
Insofar as new tech fires human imagination, it comes from self-motivated outsiders, not corporate shills. Rollo Carpenter, whose Cleverbot program has come close to passing the Turing Test, has worked for various start-ups, but remains substantially a free agent. Philo Farnsworth, who invented the earliest television, had an adversarial relationship with corporations, which repeatedly plagiarized from an inventor they considered a back-country farmboy.
Saying this, I acknowledge that technology has reached a point where garage hobbyists can only do so much. Without access to industrial technology, they cannot imprint a circuit board, for instance. But if tech companies would really innovate, as Jobs and Gates once did, they might start by giving in-house inventors freer rein, letting them pursue private passions, and follow cow paths that pay off only after prior attempts have failed.
The persistent popularity of space opera and cyberpunk, the forms of science fiction least bound by near-term realism, bespeaks a continuing belief that technology can produce a sense of wonder and gape-jawed excitement. Deep down, many of us want our flying cars and neural-net implants. But the people who actually make technology have come to dream small. It’s up to outsiders to demand more.