Howard Saunders   Nov 03, 2014   Blog, Brand, Future, Retail   2 Comments

Technology will be our saviour, of that I have little doubt. Advancements in science will help us live healthier and longer, probably solve climate change and the communication revolution will eventually make us all a little more worldly, secular and easier to get along with. But this does not mean that all the technology those big, clever Californian companies promise us is set to change our lives for the better. In fact, there are many ‘innovations’ that are, frankly, just plain stupid, misguided, or both. Now that the Apples and Googles have wormed their way into so many aspects of our lives, perhaps we feel obliged to nod sagely at every announcement as if this is all part of some ultimate destiny. It’s not.

It must be fifteen years since I laughed out loud into my Sunday supplement at the concept of the smart fridge. The idea of a refrigerator unilaterally re-ordering the milk, cheese and frozen pizza was both feasible and ridiculous: a perfect example of technology we don’t want, designed by young men who spent too many years playing Warcraft. The LG smart fridge failed spectacularly because it misunderstood what we want from our machines: we don’t want the fridge ordering the milk because, quite simply, we like to be in control.

A couple of years ago, I took a handful of clients to the launch of the Mini (motor car) brand flagship in London. The store was proudly tech-savvy and had lots of screens playing rally videos as well as touch screens to search for Mini branded merchandise. The ‘piece de resistance’ however, was the interactive mirror at the back of the store. Select an item of clothing from the menu and it would be magically superimposed onto your reflection. Genius. I cannot, honestly, remember another time I laughed so much. My colleague was well over six feet tall and the sight of his hunched frame trying to accommodate a pathetic cutout puffa jacket was just too much. It was nothing but a high tech ‘head thru the hole’ end of pier amusement. We left the store in tears.

So, now we’re supposed to be getting excited about drone deliveries. Again, it’s all utterly feasible, but stop for a minute to picture the skies thick with Amazon’s electronic bees carrying toothpaste and you start to realise how unlikely it is. It may work well for a few rural deliveries or medical supplies, but the future will not include swarms of copters hovering outside apartment blocks, looking for a place to make their drop.

I recently gave a talk alongside a lovely, enthusiastic chap from Google. Eloquently he told his tale of a future where tiny eye movements would put us in touch with friends and enable us to share information right across the world. The fact that during his live demonstration nothing actually worked does not mean it won’t happen. I’m sure it will, but it’s a stark reminder that technology goes wrong…and it goes wrong an awful lot of the time.

Which brings me to the much-heralded Google driverless car. Firstly, I understand from Google that it cannot distinguish between a crumpled newspaper and a rock, so just consider the consequences of that for a moment. Humans, on the other hand, even stupid, underage, drunk ones, automatically know how to react to things like that, so for the time being it’s probably best to leave the driving to us.

Secondly, and most significantly, we don’t want it to happen. We may moan about sitting in traffic jams but in reality we enjoy being in control, frustrating though it is sometimes. We won’t willingly relinquish control to a highly sophisticated computer anymore than we’ll hand the car keys to the family cat.

I read a report recently from a futures agency that explained how technology would change our lives. It described locking the house via an app, the car automatically starting and planning our route, the coffee waiting for us at the coffee shop and then our intelligent diaries, knowing that we wouldn’t make our meeting on time, calling ahead to reschedule. Now, I hate to pour cold water on all this sunny optimism but every stage of this prediction is flawed.

How many of us would trust a symbol on our phones that says our house is locked without at the very least pushing on the door to check? Do we really want our cars to start running based on our everyday routine? If we’re honest, we don’t actually want our coffee sitting there waiting, getting cold…we want to watch it being made, that’s the whole point! And the thought of my diary ringing ahead and making its own arrangements just makes my blood boil.

For some time now Nerds have been telling us that wearable tech is the next big thing, but we’re still waiting. Nerdism’s problem is that it can only design for itself. Self respecting non-nerds wouldn’t be seen dead in most of the stuff that’s promised, and horrific though they are, the assaults on Google-glass wearers were hardly surprising.

The Holy Grail for big tech companies is fashionability, or coolness. Apple was well aware its watch could fall victim to nerdism, so in an attempt to target the ‘right’ types it was launched through cool stores such as Colette in Paris and Selfridges in London. Its acquisition of Dr Dre’s Beats was also a part of this strategy. Google tried to coolify their glasses by commissioning the lovely Diane von Furstenberg to help with the design. Despite a slew of excellent PR however, they failed miserably. You see, big companies don’t decide what’s cool, we do.

Perhaps overt wearable tech is a bridge too far. The fact that we spend most of our waking hours staring at a little screen does not mean we want it tied to our foreheads or fashioned into a hat. Smart phones, like newspapers before them, are not just a way to receive information. They have become part of an urban dance, so that as we mingle with the masses we can appear detached at the same time. They provide a social function that’s more nuanced and intricate than nerdism’s Joe 90 vision of the future (Americans: Google it!) Smart phones enable us to look as if we’re engrossed in something intellectual instead of just reading celebrity tweets. Someone grinning inanely into space through big DVF frames, well that’s just plain scary.

So relax. Let’s look forward to a future where technology enhances our lives, opens up new and imaginative opportunities or solves real problems. But technology that interferes, invents problems we didn’t know we had or takes away things we were quite enjoying, that’s not for us thanks.

Read more of my blogs here: The Full Blog

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About Howard Saunders

The Retail Futurist, otherwise known as Howard Saunders, is a writer and speaker whose job it is to see beyond retail’s currently choppy waters. Howard spent the first twenty five years of his career at some of London’s most renowned retail design agencies, including Fitch & Company, where he created concepts, strategies and identities for dozens of British high street brands. In 2003 he founded trend-hunting agency, Echochamber, inspiring his clients with new and innovative store designs from across the globe. Howard relocated to New York in 2012 where the energetic regeneration of Brooklyn inspired his book, Brooklynization, published in 2017. His newfound role as champion for retail’s future in our town and city centres gave rise to the title The Retail Futurist. Howard has been interviewed on numerous television and radio programs and podcasts for BBC Radio 4, BBC Scotland, the British Retail Consortium, Sky News Australia and TVNZ, New Zealand. His talks are hi-energy, jargon-free journeys that explore the exciting, if not terrifying, retail landscape that lies ahead. When not in retail mode, Howard has recorded, literally, thousands of digital music masterpieces, most of which remain, thankfully, unheard.


  1. James Davies Says: January 6, 2015 9:18 am Reply

    You have people in life who are exceptional at spotting the what us normal folks say is the obvious (Howard you do this very well) yet we have to read or be told it is obvious before we realise it is! This is exactly what has happened to me reading this blog; our working day whizzes by into the family evening before we know it, and through the hectic day we all read articles on our cell phones about the latest technology, or what the government are up to, or how many vegetables we should be eating for dinner etc etc blah blah blah – Yet do we ever stop to think about that we are actually reading? Do we take the time to form our own opinions? Does it actually makes any sense? Do we make our own decisions? i am not so sure we do.

  2. Christoph Hanser Says: March 3, 2015 7:21 pm Reply

    Interesting and polarizing read. Though it didn’t convinced me it made me think – that’s already a good achievement.
    Reading though the lines I see the thesis humans ‘want to be in control’ – fair point, if I only could add ‘for things that emotionally touch me’! Locking the house doesn’t. Locking the car doesn’t. It is necessity, another nasty duty I have to care. So that’s why Renault introduced in the 80ies remote key controls. People were laughing and mistrusting the thingy. But as soon they realized they can rely on this technology and they got proper feedback provided (hear the click, see the blink?), the thing was ubiquitous. Nobody laughed, everybody admired it. And they will admire it for houses, as soon the interface works.
    Same for providing me with food (be it with pizza supplying fridges), getting me from A to B (in a self-driving car or whatsoever), actually very often I don’t want to be in control of nitty-gritty details, only underdeveloped technology is hindering me from not caring at all. As soon it is good enough – I will give a try and let technology go. Controlling a car in a stop-and-go is the most annoying ‘being in control’ I can think of, merci beaucoup to google and let it go.
    The problem is not the ‘nerdy’ need or idea, the problem is mostly the ‘nerdy’ interface, ‘nerdy’ user experience and the lack of human centric design. If technology is ready, trust me, proper design will solve such problems. Consult me, if help needed.

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