Inexhaustible Novelty and its Discontents

If you follow technology news at all, you’re probably tired of hearing variations on the word “disruption.” You’ve maybe heard the words “revolutionary” or “revolutionize” a few too many times in the past decade, to the point where it sounds kind of silly. I get that. While it’s undeniable that the Age of the iPhone has fundamentally changed so much of our day-to-day lives, the constant acknowledgement of these changes, and the fact that it never seems to be enough, can be a bit much. I get that.

Ian Bogost writes at The Atlantic of “the inescapability of docility” as a result of our domestication-by-tech, and is worn out:

A torpor has descended, the weariness of having lived this change before—or one similar enough, anyway—and all too recently. The future isn’t even here yet, and it’s already exhausted us in advance.

Well, not me, but I think I can sympathize somewhat with the idea that the current pace of technological novelty can be exhausting. There’s a computer in your pocket, and then in your TV, and on your face, and on your wrist, and every time a new embedding of consumer technology plants a flag, the culture scrambles to take part in the Grand Discussion about What It All Means. Including me! But if it’s not your bag, if you’re just trying to work around all of this change and rapid adoption, I can see how the past year or so of consumer tech discussion could induce severe eye-rolling.

I wonder if this is just the way things are going to be from now on, with new paradigms shifting at such a clip as to manufacture a constant need for reanalysis of What It All Means, or if there’s something particular to this span of ten to fifteen years. Technological advancement does seem to be on this asymptotic upward slope approaching infinity when you think about the span of time between, say, the printing press and the PC versus the PC and the Apple Watch. Perhaps this is just something we have to get used to. (Insert ponderings about the Singularity here.)

But there does seem to be something novel about the developments of the last decade or so. The more-or-less simultaneous advent of things like capacitive touch screens, super-high-resolution displays, tiny desktop-cads processors, high-capacity solid-state local storage, near-ubiquitous wireless broadband connectivity, and gargantuan cloud server capacities have conspired to upend so many things about our society so quickly, that it’s hard to imagine that such a convergence of similarly transformative technologies could continue to occur decade after decade as it has. We may have just been riding that rare elevator on the otherwise long rock-climb up the technological mountain.

If that’s correct, and things will soon go back to “normal” (whatever that means), perhaps those who are exhausted by all of this novelty will get a break, and rather than, say, 25-year-olds suddenly feeling old because of those spunky 20-year-olds who are on the cuttingest of edges, we can go back to, say, parents being confused by their kids, with technological generations more closely mirroring biological ones. Today, the phrase “in my day” can mean a couple of years ago, as in, “In my day, tablets only had 3G connectivity!”

The thing is, the pace of recent change has created a demand for its continuous regeneration. Products and services that “change everything” are now expected, even demanded, on a yearly basis. But that’s not a technological demand, really. It’s a cultural and commercial one. Again, I have some sympathy with Bogost, as he laments the spate of “think pieces” and navel-gazing (or rather wrist-gazing) heralded by the Apple Watch and its contemporaries:

I’m less interested in accepting wearables given the right technological conditions as I am prospectively exhausted at the idea of dealing with that future’s existence. Just think about it. All those people staring at their watches in the parking structure, in the elevator. Tapping and stroking them, nearly spilling their coffee as they swivel their hands to spin the watch’s tiny crown control.

The enemy here isn’t the technology itself, it’s the manufacturing of their necessity. I’m on record for being skeptical of the Apple Watch’s reason for existing, a skepticism similar to that I felt when we first met Google Glass (well, maybe not first met…I had to get over how neat and future-y it was before I could begin to arch my eyebrow). While smartphones and tablets I believe really did provide a level of utility that made their usefulness almost self-evident, some of the more recent Revolutionary Products do seem to be solutions searching for problems. Smartwatches, Google Glass, Oculus Rift, even curved displays; while smartphones eased into and complemented the flow of our lives, these other things almost need to be forced in and adapted to. So the ennui Bogost experiences here may not be so much with Glass, but with Glassholes. And I sympathize.

I obviously don’t share the sentiment overall, however. Of course our consumer culture will always be hungry for New. Our journalistic culture, that ravenous web content beast, will always demand to be fed more and more New. And much of this New will be thoroughly prodded and examined and consumed, and then summarily discarded.

But just as one deals with frustration with New England weather, wait five minutes. Because when we least expect it, something genuinely novel, useful, and, well, disrupting will emerge, and all those pretentious think pieces and navel-gazings will give way once again to a sincere Grand Discussion about What It All Means. And we’ll actually need it.

And rather than be exhausting, it will be energizing.


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