for the record, I wish it *could* change everything

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 si├Ęcle.

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.

Also, lightbulbs:

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.

10 Responses to “for the record, I wish it *could* change everything”

  1. Spencer Ackerman

    I stopped reading when he asserted he can be surveilled by a drone in Afghanistan. Unless he’s in Afghanistan, and less than a square-mile of Afghanistan at that*, no, he can’t. Alexis knows better; he’s top of the game. Surprised by this.

    *much more powerful military camera suites, with names like Gorgon Stare and ARGUS, are coming online soon. At their most powerful, they will see a city-sized swath at a time. Continent-spanning drone surveillance will come the Monday after we all have jetpacks. And I’d actually prefer it if there was, because when you’re seeing a picture of that size, the human analysts who will have to interpret that data will be too overwhelmed, cognitively, for any individual to be meaningfully spied upon. BUT ANYWAY.

  2. Spencer Ackerman

    Also, continent-spanning surveillance, if it ever happens, will not be borne in the bellies of drones. It’ll come hoisted by blimps larger than football fields. Even on the Monday after we all have jetpacks, we still won’t have mega-cameras small enough or drone airplanes large enough to make this all work together.

    OK I’m done.

  3. Tom

    Yeah, that raised my eyebrows as well. I think he must have been speaking hyperbolically, but it’s a weird formulation.

  4. mattw1

    Really interesting post. I think a lot of people are starting to come around to these kinds of thoughts, and even questioning the value of social media and technology itself. I like my iPhone, but I know I am. By the way, have you ever checked out the short-lived BBC series Black Mirror? It’s a fictional meditation on today’s technology and culture from a particularly dark perspective. (Hence, “Black Mirror”.)

    A note to the commenters: you do realize that technical accuracy is beside the point of either article? It’s bizarre to focus on that.

  5. Dan

    Spencer Ackerman’s comment made me laugh, not out loud, but rather a “holy shit, how could some be so dense yet also so arrogant as to call out Alexis for being sloppy with his facts” kind of laugh.

    Alexis’s article was filled with a childish despair that deserved the sarcastic response posted here, but the statement of being able to do a bunch of disparate and far-reaching tasks using a smart phone, and even being able to do all of that while in Afghanistan, one of the most isolated places on earth, is a simple statement of fact. A fact reinforced by Ackerman’s snark. Yes he has to be in Afghanistan to be surveilled by a drone… in Afghanistan. Is that really your great insight Spencer?

  6. Freddie

    I think you’re ascribing to the tech world specifically what are conditions universal to late capitalism. Part of the neoliberal project is to reduce all human interaction to commodity relationships, to currency interchange. Facebook, for example, takes social information and commodifies it. This commodification creep is a necessary part of a system that relies on endlessly expanding markets in a world that’s only so big. But the reduction of human life to capital interchange is necessarily alienating. When you extinguish the ineffable and transcendent, you’re of course going to get people who feel unhappy, even when they’ve got the whiz-bang technology their culture tells them is the key to the good life.

    That’s not a dynamic that’s restricted to right now, but we used to have other means of creating self-satisfaction. Back when work was considered primarily about craftsmanship, there was identification with occupation, which created a sense of purpose and worth. But the jobs that (I’m constantly told) are the jobs of the future are increasingly devoid of autonomy, a connection between quality and compensation, and the production of tangible goods. Meanwhile, the religious convictions and civic engagements that previously had a lot to do with self-worth and fulfillment have both declined, thanks to a rise in atheism (or at least in fulfilled belief) and the demise of non-occupational social organizations.

  7. Noah Smith

    OK, what does this post even mean? I can’t tell where the sarcasm ends and the serious begins. And I have no idea what point is being made here. Am I just not working hard enough and reading closely enough? Is this post a lulzy masterpiece, and I’m a swine sniffing disinterestedly at a pearl?

  8. Will Wilkinson

    You are not working hard enough. It’s a lulzy masterpiece.

  9. Pete Nelson

    I enjoyed the comments on the original article as much as the article itself, and then this comes along and further perpetuates time being sucked right out from under me when really I could have been solving world problems, singly and in my own way…

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