Great ex­pec­ta­tions

Why do whizz-bang tech launches of­ten fail to de­liver?

Idealog - - CONTENTS -

WE COVER A fair bit of tech­nol­ogy at Idea­log and we’re usu­ally among the first in line when it comes to prod­uct launches.

So I watched Mi­crosoft’s latest launch last month – the new Hololens vir­tual-re­al­ity tech­nol­ogy – with more than a lit­tle en­thu­si­asm.

Make no mis­take: the Hololens is a pretty big deal. Ac­cord­ing to ev­ery­one, it is set to bring in­ter­ac­tive, high- def­i­ni­tion holo­grams to the real world. It’s very much the stuff of a sci-fi nerd’s wet dream.

The pre­sen­ta­tion was, as to be ex­pected, equal parts cringe-wor­thy and slick, and, as usual, it was im­pos­si­ble to come away from it not be­ing im­pressed.

“Hololens,” said the pre­sen­ter, “is the fu­ture of com­put­ing,” and for a mo­ment I be­lieved it.

But hang on a minute. I get the feel­ing I’ve been here be­fore.

Why must these things al­ways re­sort to the same hy­per­bole? And more to the point, why do I al­ways be­lieve it?

Against my bet­ter in­stincts, I once again found my­self in the same state of rapt, re­cep­tive and un­crit­i­cal re­cep­tion – some­one get me a Hololens now. I fall for it ev­ery time and I don’t think I’m the only one.

As a species we have mas­tered the art of the tech an­nounce­ment.

Steve Jobs cer­tainly knew how to work a crowd. He knew his au­di­ence and he knew how to build a mys­tery. When the ‘big’ re­veal fi­nally came – Look! It’s another iPhone! And this time it’s WHITE! – the crowd would only wait for its spasms of rap­ture to pass be­fore clam­ber­ing to the near­est iS­tore. Pavlov’s dogs had more self-pos­ses­sion. And while mod­ern tech com­pa­nies don’t al­ways ex­hibit Jobs’ flair, they too have learned how to put on a hell of a show, one that projects a lu­di­crously con­fi­dent, hy­per-ide­alised re­al­ity that couldn’t pos­si­bly find its match in the dayto- day life of the prod­ucts be­ing flogged.

As I write this, the in­ter­net is tak­ing some joy in dis­man­tling Elon Musk’s Pow­er­wall, a so­lar pow­ered bat­tery so­lu­tion that can – if you be­lieve the hype – power your whole house for a one-time pay­ment of a cou­ple of grand.

The an­nounce­ment felt like the be­gin­ning of a revo­lu­tion. Screw you fos­sil fu­els! Get bent, big power! Musk’s vi­sion of the fu­ture – where we are all off the grid, never to re­turn – is so bright, that there’s no way not to be swept away with it, at least a lit­tle.

Trou­ble is, now the beans are be­ing counted and num­bers crunched, Pow­er­wall turns out to be con­sid­er­ably more ex­pen­sive, and con­sid­er­ably less grunty than cur­rent bat­tery tech­nol­ogy. It’s green al­right, but hardly the revo­lu­tion promised at the re­lease. “Another toy for rich green peo­ple,” scolded Forbes.

Still, for me, none of this hype can hold a can­dle to the en­chant­ing pre­pos­ter­ous­ness of Ama­zon Dash.

Though not a joke, April 1 saw Ama­zon re­lease a slick YouTube promo for this USB-sized push­but­ton auto-re­plen­ish­ment de­vice you keep next to your cof­fee maker, wash­ing ma­chine or pantry. When you run out of a par­tic­u­lar con­sum­able, you ac­ti­vate Ama­zon Dash with the push of a but­ton and boom, you’ve just or­dered wash­ing pow­der from Ama­

Great idea, right? The con­ve­nience! The clev­er­ness! The sheer ‘in­ter­net of thingsness’ of it! The ad makes it all look so log­i­cal, so rea­son­able, the fact that we need never go shop­ping again.

But once again, as the nov­elty wears off and the cold light of day sets in, any ra­tio­nal per­son can see that Ama­zon Dash is, in fact, out­ra­geous in its hor­ri­ble­ness at the very least, if not the first horse­man of some sort of con­sumerist apoca­lypse it­self.

Yup, this is smart tech­nol­ogy al­right, tech­nol­ogy that prom­ises a utopian fu­ture in which we never, ever run out of cer­tain ev­ery­day items ever again.

But what of the ben­e­fits that come from ac­tu­ally con­sid­er­ing pur­chases be­fore mak­ing them? Things like: Do I need this? And do I need it couri­ered to my door now? Is there a cheaper, less waste­ful, or en­vi­ron­men­tally friend­lier op­tion that I’m miss­ing? Should per­sonal con­ve­nience be my only point of ref­er­ence when mak­ing a pur­chase?

Sorry Ama­zon, there’s more to a well-lived life than an end­less stream of well-man­aged do­mes­tic pur­chases.

And it’s not that I’m a Lud­dite, I swear. I want my world to be filled with holo­grams, cheap power and ul­tra- con­ve­nience just as much as the next guy. But I know, as we all must, that the prom­ise of the promo and the re­al­i­ties of real life just can’t match up. They never do.

We’ve been here be­fore.

Sorry Ama­zon, there's more to a well-lived life than an end­less stream of well-man­aged do­mes­tic pur­chases.”

Jonathan Cot­ton is dig­i­tal editor of Idea­log. He loves read­ing, writ­ing, the in­ter­net, and the smell of na­palm in the morn­ing.


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