Cognitive Disconnect

Is our future society doomed because of our increased inability to see beyond ourselves?

I’ve been looking over reports from CES (the Consumer Electronics Show) for a few days now (as I do every year at this time), and as always there are some interesting devices that have emerged. But the comments and criticisms all mirror the same sentiments, no matter what the device: this won’t fit my needs, won’t fit in my living room, won’t work for me, so it’s crap and not worth producing. As George Harrison wrote, “I me my.” This isn’t a particularly new phenomenon of course, but it’s becoming increasingly prevalent in becoming a basis for financial decisions that can make or break adoption of technology that may in fact be critical for our advancement. If investors and the public can’t see the ‘everyone use,’ then our lack of imagining the possibilities of application of a technology and/or not caring about technology that is not specifically useful to us as-is becomes a deterrent to progress.

Take, for instance, Apple’s upcoming ‘MacBook Tablet.’ Rumors and speculation have been flying around about the device for months now (as is the case every year in January, but people seem to have a collective amnesia about this. It’s clockwork, but every year the same cycles of rumors, reveals, and rhetoric emerge). This time, however, the conversation isn’t as much about what features it will have as it is about ‘do I personally want/need a tablet?’ and not about ‘there is a market for a device like this, even if it’s not for me.’ Apple used to be allowed to make systems for a (more or less) niche market, and that was a good thing – but with the successes of the iPod and the iPhone, now they are under constant scrutiny whenever they make anything that is not for the entirety of the masses. We need a tech company that’s allowed to go down the rabbit holes, and increasingly the ‘big tech’ companies are too fearful to do that kind of R&D anymore.

And it’s incredibly hard –and stupid– to keep creating one-size-fits-all electronics. I’m a full-fledged gadget lover, but CES makes my head spin… so much of what’s shown from there seems to be attempting to appeal to too broad of a customer base (after all, everyone is a ‘consumer’), and that’s just not going to get us to the next stage of technology. We need more specialized tech, less ‘everyone should find something to do with it’ devices. The great thing about the iPhone (or iPod Touch) is that it is a platform that can be easily customized to turn into specialty devices; hopefully the tablet can too. ‘Specialized tech’ does not mean ‘a device that only does one thing’ like 3D TVs and eBook readers; specialized tech means we start to build solutions for specific usage, for function and efficiency – within the consumer and small business space. Big business, healthcare, government, military – there are a lot of verticals that have their own needs and evolve their technology accordingly. But the rest of us are stuck in this odd ‘everyone needs a log’ limbo where the technology has migrated from making our lives easier to making us frustrated & overwhelmed trying to make sense of it all. We’ve shifted from proprietary, closed, singular-function devices to these great big swiss-army-knife solutions, but we swung 180 degrees when we needed to only go 90. And worst of all, we care less and less about what we ‘should’ do and just try and build what we ‘can’ make. A TV with an integrated printer? That’s a solution looking for a problem. A combination light bulb/wireless speaker? Well, that has some practical use for a certain market, and that’s the kind of innovation we need more of.

My fear is that big companies will keep the status quo – copying each other, buying out perceived threats, and trying to become the biggest fish in the pond – and they’ll stop innovating. In the meantime, investors will become less interested in niche devices/applications and only want to find ‘the next Google’ or ‘the next facebook,’ stuff that they think has mass appeal. Somewhere in that mix, brilliant ideas are falling flat from the lack of funding. The problems that technology solves will have to be big enough to get attention, and in the meantime, the people working in their garages, making the little gizmos that could very well have made someone’s life better and simpler (maybe not yours), will just be lost in the twitter streams and blog posts about crappy headphones and remotes.