It pains me to write these words in a technology column but technology has become boring. At the recent Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas most of the excitement centred on televisions. More precisely, about the Android-based operating systems that many of the current and next generation of goggle boxes – or Google Boxes as they are gradually becoming – will run on.
As objects of desire go, TVs are pretty dull. And in order to get the same kind of picture that the salesman in the shop promised would be a simple case of ‘plug and play’ requires weeks of mind bending contortions. One of my friends has somehow zoomed into his picture and can now only see two thirds of the onscreen action.
Three of us spent two hours trying to rectify the problem. To no avail. So now he can only see half of the football scores and has no idea who has won the games. And he never gets to see the money shot. But this is digression.
CES used to be one of the most exciting dates on the tech landscape: it made Christmas pale into insignificance. Compared to this tech trade show beamed in from another galaxy (Las Vegas!) Christmas was so last year. CES was all about the shiny, flashing boxes you’d spend months obsessing about and get to unwrap next December.
Only now, it’s all about the tellys. But it’s not the fault of the ‘trade show of trade shows’. They’re still doing their best to hype it up and generate some excitement. The problem is us: our ridiculously high expectations. In short, we’re all suffering from electronic ennui; the latest form of tech fatigue.
Look at the evidence. Apple makes beautiful devices that effortlessly integrate with one another. Buying your first iPhone, iPad, MacBook or iPod sends frissons of excitement down your spine. You uncork it from the minimalist packaging, turn it on and marvel at the ease of use, the build quality and its versatility: phone or computer; tablet or music workstation, mp3 player or spirit level?
The second one you buy, not so much. There’s a little shiver but it’s no longer a full body thing. It’s like heroin. You’re always chasing the intensity of that first hit. And no matter what kind of screen or processor or size or lightness the next generation of devices uses it’s never as satisfying as the first one, more of an evolution where your enthusiasm ebbs with every upgrade.
Admittedly, the media circus plays its role. We expect so much from every product launch and the blogs and the pundits seize on every rumour to talk up each new release. So, naturally we’re disappointed. The iPhone 4S with its retina display, phenomenal voice recognition software and a camera to rival professional DSLRs was deemed a disappointment by the media and large chunks of the buying public.
And other manufacturers have seen a similar tail off. HTC was once the darling of Android phone manufacturers. Nokia and Blackberry are scrambling to remain relevant. And Acer and all the other computer hardware manufacturers have such a plethora of tablets, ultrabooks, netbooks and laptops that it’s almost impossible to know what to buy.
Technololgy has become too good. Gone are the days of spending days perusing a badly translated manual to find out how to switch something on. In that process we’ve either lost interest or built up such unrealistic expectations that even if Prof. Stephen Hawking took over as Head of R&D at Sony we’d barely look up from our iPads. That’s why TVs are ruling the roost – they were terrible to buy in the 1970s and they’re still terrible today and we crave their terrible continuity.
It’s not just the devices that are the problem; it’s what we do with them as well. Take ‘The Cloud’ as an example. It’s very hard to work up enthusiasm for something you can’t see, touch or really own. The virtue of the cloud is that it’s virtual. It can be called down to wherever you happen to be. But no one ever waxed lyrical about a virtual sandwich, an almost there moped, or an invisible iron.
Unless they start offering free trips to data centres where you can view the portion of a hard drive that you rent, the cloud is going to continue to be one of those unsexy things you just have to own, like a trouser press was to businessmen in the mid-1980s.
And a well-organized data life is the IT equivalent of razor-creased trousers. Impressive but no one really cares how they got there. And that’s where we’re at with technology in 2012. A return to the days of the trouser press and the coffee maker with nothing to look forward to but a brick-shaped mobile phone.
This article originally appeared in New Man magazine.