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Two Kinds of Contemporary Technology
We were probably happier when our gadgets only did one thing.
Reading this Wall Street Journal article about how some remote workers are deliberately trying to “go analog” reminded me of something I’d thought about a while back ago. There is an important distinction to be made between digital technologies that make the essence of a particular tool more accessible and more valuable, and technologies that radically transform the essence of a particular tool into something else. Just thinking from the hip, perhaps we could call these two categories essence-positive and essence-negative.
Essence-positive technologies take an existing tool that has some value and magnify that value by making it easier to experience. One example here would be the original iPod. The iPod magnified the value of owning music by making it easier to access what you own. Instead of carrying big notebook-style portfolios of CDs around, you could put those CDs into a computer and then transfer their contents onto the iPod. The iPod was created to allow people to listen to the music they already had. Its major achievement was making a person’s music collection easier to access and reducing the logistical gap between possession and enjoyment.
Essence-negative technologies, on the other hand, take an existing tool and retrofit it so that its essential function changes into something else. This is what the iPod Touch did. The original iPod was responsive only to music. It was, in its essence, a music player. The iPod Touch was, like the iPhone, an entertainment hub. Its capacity to play music was consciously scaled back to make room for other things: photos, apps, games, etc. By reducing physical memory capacity, the iPod Touch actually made it harder for music lovers to use its technology for the purposes of listening to stuff they already owned. Consuming streamable entertainment became the new essence of iPod technology.
Essence-negative technologies are by far the more influential and popular kind. Just about every digital technology today is meant to do a hundred different things in a mediocre way, and this expanded capacity comes at the expense of being able to do 1 or 2 things excellently. Take cellular phones. Most carriers have ruthlessly diminished their stock of flip phones. Flip phones are essence-positive. They do one thing well: make and receive calls. They connect users more directly to the value of telephone technology. But smartphones do a ton of things semi-well. They are essence-negative; sound quality is diminished, cost is much higher, and the skill needed to operate a smartphone greatly exceeds the accessible level of a flip phone. The telephonic nature of the smartphone is an accident; it might as well not be a phone. Yet this is the “phone” that corporations assume 99.9% of people want. And they’re usually right.
What the WSJ article highlights is how tired essence-negative technologies tend to make us. Broadband snapped the tether between going online and needing a wired hookup to a modem, but in so doing it transformed the Internet from a tool into an ambience. You cannot “go online.” You are always online…and thus, always reachable, always distractable, always stressable. Remote workers in particular have to deal with the Web’s intense blurring of the lines between work and rest. What does it mean to be “off” when the one thing that creates your office presence, the Internet, is the one thing you cannot be in your house without? It’s no surprise that people old enough to remember what life was like before an ambient Web start to suspect that maybe, just maybe, they were happier, more productive, and more at peace when their technologies only did one thing, and only when asked to do it.