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.