28 February, 2002
where'd you get that life(TM)?
on consumer technology
l a m a r c l a r k s o n
Scanning through Salon.com for the new breaks in technology that would make this issue, I came across an interview with Robert Tercek, president of PacketVideo Networks. Tercek is in the business of streamlining the interplay between consumer electronics; that is, he gets our toys to communicate with each other. Take Bluetooth, for instance, a PacketVideo product that allows you to integrate various information-age luxuries with your cell phone. Say you're stuck in an airport, and you realize you won't be home in time to catch Friends. You can use your cell phone to call your Tivo and program it to record the episode for you. Or say you're driving around with friends, and you wonder if there are any good movies playing. Bluetooth can show you the trailers for all films out this week and even use your global coordinates to calculate the most convenient theaters and showtimes. And should you find yourself on foreign turf, it'll provide you with the quickest route to that most convenient showing. All on your cell. Great, right? I'm pretty lazy, not to mention picky, as I imagine many of you are too. If some machine is going to do this stuff for me, I can hardly complain. But at what point does this become ridiculous? Is there such a thing as too much convenience?
The Tercek interview begged questions like, "Do people really want video on their cell phones?" and "Do people really want smart appliances that anticipate their every whim?" but he never answered these questions straight. For him, they always led to one more cool device, one more example, one more instance of fabulous media saturation. He says he loves returning to the United States from other countries because it makes him realize what a media-dependent culture we live in. He imagines a future in which video replaces everything traditionally paper, printed, and static. Instead of ads posted on building corners, mounted flat screens show ads. Instead of ads attached to buses, big screens play ads as buses move through towns--and the ads change according to what part of town the bus is in and what time it is (rush hour time slots cost more). And when you think you can't absorb one more video image? "You can always absorb one more video image," says Tercek, "We will be awash in rich media stew." Maybe the scary thing here is that it isn't really that big a step.
What level of technology do all of us (as college kids and as part of a larger, technology-literate generation) feel is most basic, that fundamental level below which it's foreign to go, the one we'd feel naked without? It probably varies among us, but hovers somewhere around Internet, email, phone, and television, plus or minus satellite reception, DVD, Tivo, cell phones, MP3-players, and Playstation. This level is much higher than it was for our parents, and is probably much lower than it will be for our kids. For some of us, there seems to be a point at which we feel sated. Others live for the newest thing, and that's fine. It's just that the market for this stuff isn't always as big as we think (and as Mr. Tercek wouldn't answer for us); rather, it gets created in the drawing room alongside the product. Topical "problems" are "simplified" or "solved" to sell a product, yes, for your own convenience and "connectivity"--but the real winners are guys like Tercek. The more connected you are, the more advertisements you see, the more the manufacturers and their advertisers sell. And they will always make more.
I don't mean to lash out at these products--they really are harmless--yet I can't resist pointing out that the intentions behind them often are not so. It's up to us to remember that and occasionally to recognize the superfluities in our lives and name them. No streamlined, superdesigned, slick little piece of black plastic will do that for us.
Global positioning handhelds, iPods, and televisual cell phones are not the must-have innovations and huge leaps in technological progress their advertisers make them out to be; they're little rectangles you wander off with for a few kicks. This is the case with our most intimate technologies: our lives are filled with indulgent--albeit occasionally cool--consumer gadgets intended to make our lives just that much more simple and entertaining. Now think of the inventions that have really changed our world--giant leaps in the development of human civilization like the railroad, the steam engine, the telegraph and the telephone, the automobile, and the airplane. In our own lifetimes we've witnessed the invention of fiber optics, the dawn of genetic engineering, and the proliferation of both the Internet and satellite communication. These are abstract technologies, not products. They have implications beyond convenience, beyond chic. These bits of plastic and wire metaphorically "elevate" or "advance" our civilization. Think of it this way: we have both consumer electronics and large, vaguer things called technological advances or inventions. You desire, save up for, purchase, and finally neglect the former. The latter, however, tend to be the stuff of dreams.
I, for one, would like to see some teleportation. Wouldn't that be nice? A century of gradually improving transportation finally culminates in, boom! Instant access to anywhere on the planet. Our Internet- and world-trade-inspired metaphor, the global citizen, suddenly takes on new, literal meaning. What would that world be like? No separated lovers. No homesickness; home is everywhere. I'm not asking you to believe in teleportation, or even put down your game cube; I'm just asking you to dream a little, to think about what would really make this world a better, or at least more interesting, place. And if you don't Robert Tercek will do it for you.
The future will always be packaged and sold as palm-sized metallic rectangles that boost connectivity and cool, but which would you prefer: a Bluetooth or commercially viable solar power? A Samsung flatscreen television or a semester abroad on the International Space Station? Your entire CD collection in one little plastic nugget or the nanosurgery capable of suturing a paraplegic's spine? A cure for boredom or a cure for cancer? You get the theme. Of course, these choices don't have to be mutually exclusive--we can have our toys and our incredible advances at the same time. But the choice gets made for us when we get so caught up in our fabulous gadgetry that we forget to dream.