The technology pendulum never stops swinging. Its rhythms create, then disrupt, then transform, delighting users while enriching innovators. When tech revolutions reach middle age innovators give way to optimizers, markets saturate, and products ossify. That is what creates the right conditions for the next cycle. Having been at this game since minicomputers vanquished punch cards, I’ve ridden enough waves to respect the rhythm.
Each cycle has its own tools. Tools have been agents of change since cavemen figured out how to chip flint. Most tools start out as cumbersome curiosities, nurtured by a motivated few. Those that provide competitive advantage proliferate, evolving into blessings. Then they become essentials, before aging into relics waiting for the next wave of innovation to wash them away.
The dominant tech innovations of our times – the PC, the Internet, and the smartphone – crawled out of separate primordial swamps powered by common semiconductor DNA. For half a century, Moore’s Law enabled spectacular growth. But as pointed out recently by Broadcom’s chairman and CTO Henry Samueli, “The Moore’s Law blowout sale is ending.”
Each species of innovation basked in its glory before crossbreeding with the others, producing a Cambrian explosion of mobile Apps, the most advanced digital life form. Because the integrated ecosystem vastly lowered barriers to entry, Apps proliferated like mayflies.
Most Apps started out delivering novel utility. But slowly – one update at a time, one App after another – they became tools designed not to so much to delight but to attract and herd us into walled gardens where we can be monetized by vendors lacking business models. As this has happened, I’ve stopped feeling empowered by Apps and have started feeling used.
I start and end every day with Zite. It used to be easy, friendly and obedient. When I told Zite I didn’t like a particular source, author, or subject it apologized, banishing the offender from my screen. You can no longer finger authors or subjects, only sources. And while Zite still pretends to apologize, I’ve given a hundred thumbs down to Salon and there it is back in my face every day. I am left wondering why.
Zite used to play well with other apps, making it easy to tweet a story, grab the tweeted text along with the URL, and either embed it into an email or post it to one or another Facebook account. Zite now wants to manage all your experiences, never mind if you don’t want to be managed. Like so many other Apps, Zite is becoming a roach motel. You can get in but you can’t get out.
I’ve lost track of most of the Apps I’ve downloaded, like stale forgotten browser bookmarks. Many times I loaded them because the web site got huffy about using its stupid App, so I gave it a try. More often than not all it did was suck me into another roach motel, often degrading functionality rather than enhancing it.
So I’m done downloading new Apps. And I’m as tired of updating old ones as I am of downloading patches for Windows 7, which is surely the last version of Windows I will ever buy. I’m also done buying new PCs, or new smartphones for that matter. The incremental benefits are too small. And while I’m both consuming and producing more content than ever, the process is not getting faster or easier at the pace it used to.
And so I wait for the next wave, worrying that society’s drive to innovate might be declining. Too many entrepreneurs seem happy to tinker at the edges, hoping to become the next Instagram billionaire. Has our ability to chase big ideas been crushed by the onslaught of regulatory, policy, and monetary missteps that are kneecapping the rest of the economy? Or is something else at work?
Ultimately, the digital age must give way to something else. Like the age of oil and steel, it will leave our lives full of slowly changing commodities we take for granted. But it has lost its ability to gobsmack us with that big “Aha!”
I want the thrill that ran up my spine when I got my first PC. I want a surge of power to course through my brain like it did the first time I plugged my PC into a LAN. I yearn for the fresh smell of freedom my first wireless email delivered. I crave the sense of wonder I discovered the first time I took a browser for a spin. But mostly, I hope that whatever comes next arrives before I turn into a complete curmudgeon.