Let me start by saying that I really like Alexis Madrigal’s work. He’s got an eye for what’s new and interesting and he writes pieces that are fluid and thoughtful.
But it’s hard for me to read this and not despair. He comes so close to the realization that a guy as smart as him ought to have already had:
I can take a photo of a check and deposit it in my bank account, then turn around and find a new book through a Twitter link and buy it, all while being surveilled by a drone in Afghanistan and keeping track of how many steps I’ve walked.
The question is, as it has always been: now what?
Decades ago, the answer was, “Build the Internet.” Fifteen years ago, it was, “Build the Web.” Five years ago, the answers were probably, “Build the social network” or “Build the mobile web.” And it was in around that time in 2007 that Facebook emerged as the social networking leader, Twitter got known at SXSW, and we saw the release of the first Kindle and the first iPhone. There are a lot of new phones that look like the iPhone, plenty of e-readers that look like the Kindle, and countless social networks that look like Facebook and Twitter. In other words, we can cross that task off the list. It happened.
What we’ve seen since have been evolutionary improvements on the patterns established five years ago. The platforms that have seemed hot in the last couple of years — Tumblr, Instagram, Pinterest — add a bit of design or mobile intelligence to the established ways of thinking. The most exciting thing to come along in the consumer space between then and now is the iPad. But despite its glorious screen and extended battery life, it really is a scaled up iPhone that offers developers more space and speed to do roughly the same things they were doing before. The top apps for the iPad look startlingly similar the top apps for the iPhone: casual games, social networking, light productivity software.
For at least five years, we’ve been working with the same operating logic in the consumer technology game. This is what it looks like:
There will be ratings and photos and a network of friends imported, borrowed, or stolen from one of the big social networks. There will be an emphasis on connections between people, things, and places. That is to say, the software you run on your phone will try to get you to help it understand what and who you care about out there in the world. Because all that stuff can be transmuted into valuable information for advertisers.
That paradigm has run its course. It’s not quite over yet, but I think we’re into the mobile social fin de siècle.
This is just an excerpt. But the whole post is pervaded by a sorrowful impatience. A sense that that all that stuff that came before was okay, but not quite what we were looking for, you know? It’s time for something new; something that, finally, will really change everything.
A pessimist might be worried. It’s almost as if these endless cresting waves of technical fads are never actually going to carry us beyond the threshold that we perceive but can’t name — that we won’t achieve transcendence through apps, that HTML5 won’t remake human nature, that meaning might be more than one more MacWorld away. That technology is only important to the extent that it lets us do things we otherwise couldn’t, and that a maniacal focus on tech as a movement, beat or industry will necessarily rob it of all its vitality, leaving the obsessive observer of valuations and launches on a joyless and masturbatory trudge through the sucked-dry bones of a topic that is only worth considering in its relation to a vastly richer, larger and more important cultural landscape.
I mean… it could be, right? Should we at least consider the possibility?
Actually, no, nevermind — whew! — that’s all wrong. Check it out, the new iPhone 5 could be AMAZING:
[...] I think we all better hope that the iPhone 5 has some crazy surprises in store for us later this year. Maybe it’s a user interface thing. Maybe it’s a whole line of hardware extensions that allow for new kinds of inputs and outputs. I’m not sure what it is, but a decently radical shift in hardware capabilities on par with phone–>smartphone or smartphone–>iPhone would be enough, I think, to provide a springboard for some new ideas.
I have some [ideas] of my own, too. The cost of a lumen of light is dropping precipitously; there must be more things than lightbulbs that can benefit from that.
That could be a thing, right? Lightbulbs as a platform, man. You go email the alumni list for a technical cofounder, I’ll start working on the pitch deck. Do you think we should do it Ignite style or aim for more of a TEDx thing?
And don’t forget Big Data. No, we still have no idea what problems we actually want to solve with it (all human disease? let’s discuss in Campfire). But check it out, I found an amazing Stack Overflow thread about building a software RAID array out of EBSes. Once we spend a couple hundred bucks on an Elastic MapReduce run, how could we not have fundamentally improved our civilization? It’s inconceivable!
There’s vast amounts of databases, real-world data, and video that remains unindexed. Who knows what a billion Chinese Internet users will come up with? The quantified self is just getting going on its path to the programmable self. And no one has figured out how to do augmented reality in an elegant way.
Anyway, thank goodness. For a second there I was worried.