Tech will once again be a tool
FEBRUARY 23RD, 2016 — POST 050
Chris Dixon yesterday published a piece that is one of the more deserving to reach top spot on Medium. What’s Next in Computing tracks not only current trends and obvious spaces for growth in the tech sector, but also integrates an historical perspective to draw conclusions about the future of the industry upon which so many eyes are fixed. However, Dixon doesn’t deviate from facts and data-driven speculation too much. As such, there’s one factor that is being overlooked, a factor that is no less important:
What’s next in computing might well be what’s next in our relationship to computers. Specifically, the dynamics of dominance that have been at play for over a decade and have assisted in rocketting tech growth appear to be waning. Our relationship to tech over the last decade can be characterised by our submission to it, by an allowance of tech to encroach on embodied humanity. The pendullum will now swing back: the next moment will be characterised by our embodied humanity pushing back.
I don’t know how closely you follow mobile phone leaks. Well, the Samsung Galaxy S7 was leaked last week. There few things I care less about right now than what the next Galaxy S looks like, less what specs it has. But just a few years ago even some convicing renders of the body of a phone superimposed onto a picture of a table would have got me scouring over leaks. I’d check the proported spec sheets against devices currently on the market or predicted for release that cycle. I fundamentally cared about these devices, not because I was always after the next Samsung device. Rather, at that point, being “into tech” meant being into the whole conversation, the constant competition, the vying for control of the marketplace, but above all being into the possibility that a single leak could contain a perfect object.
This object fetishism, I would argue, began with the iMac — the colours of a candy store wrapped over the back of the most compelling consumer PC in years. The iMac was not only a useful tool but a beautiful thing. The futher we tread into the 2000s, with the release of several iMacs and later iPods, the more steadily a product’s “thingyness” became more important than its utility. Sure, you told yourself that this new iPod could hold 7500 songs and that’s why you were buying it. But your old one held 5000. It’s not bias that has me only talking about Apple here. I can’t imagine it is at all controversial to suggest that the iMac started a period in the company’s history where they released products that uniquely offered more than utility. Bound up in glass, aluminium, and silicon was lifestyle, was aesthetics, was identity.
With the iPhone, we submitted to technology dominating our embodied humanity.
I’m not going to make a value judgement here where others surely would. I’m in no way a champion of anything amounting or adjacent to the technophobic position so oft touted that, essentially, technology is ruining society/humanity/the world. I’m not a nostalgist for the way things were because, frankly, I’m really too young to know. I’m too young to be salient of any point before MSN and MySpace and my entire adult life has been conducted with a smartphone at the end of my arm. What I do know is how I feel.
As much as tech companies might sell products on the strength of saying otherwise, the use of technology has mostly required our bodies contorting to the product. I recall the first time I gave my dad a touchscreen device and the strange gesture of aggressive pecking he would implement in an attempt to interact. The touchscreen interaction hasn’t been successful because it is natural. Rather, we have been conditioned through negative reinforcement of unintended results and positive reinforcement of intended results to intuitively understand the exact movement of the finger that will yield a successful touch. The same goes for game controls, or computer mice. Technology is dimwitted. It requires precise input and its intefaces are crafted with that precision in mind. The use of these precise interfaces has us silencing, ignoring, or even denying our embodied existence. What tech has provided is the possibility to inhabit divergent virtual and mental worlds without an acknowledgement of the brute fact that I’m also 80kgs worth of meat and bone. If you want to see the future of technology, look to the products that acknowledge this fact.
This is what the majority of entrants into Chris Dixon’s piece do. From VR to self-driving cars, the next chapter in tech will love that I’m meaty. Where I once worshipped at the foot of the tech object, I will soon wield it as a tool: one that moves in and out of my life seamlessly instead of demanding my life is moved in and out of it jarringly.
The next tech product will be what it once made me: a tool.