I fully support the technology that is being created right now to make my life easier. Devices, programs and doodads that make me more productive while saving me time and energy are certainly hard to argue with. I like a coffee pot that not only wakes you up but brews a cup of coffee for you to grab on your way out the door. I like my television with the DVD player and VCR built into its one frame. I like anything wireless and my ability to use wireless things with nary a concern for proximity to its base station (I like to use my bluetooth keyboard from the fire escape outside of my office).
What presents a minor conundrum for me is the threshold of technological progress. That is to say, the goal of major progress is to consolidate tasks into ever smaller amounts of space and time. I don't profess to know what the limit is for this goal but I do know there is a limit. Or in more specific terms, I am bored of my ipod.
That's right. I am bored of the nearly 8,300 songs on my ipod. You know, that 19 days worth of music I carry around in digital form? Yawn. All those CDs I digitized so I could have them with me at all time? I'm over them. There is something about having my entire collection at my fingertips that has led me to cycle through the list of artists on my ipod and think way too often that I have nothing I want to listen to. Most of this malaise I think comes more from my perception of my circumstances than from a flaw in the ipod's design. But there is something to making human existence TOO easy that I think can inspire this feeling.
It's not that I ever relished the moments of digging through my CD shelves for the one CD I thought would capture the mood I was in. Due to poor organizational skills, these moments of digging took way too long and paid off in pretty fleeting dividends ("Oh damn, that Wall of Voodoo album is… okay!") However, I certainly never looked at my wall of CDs and thought, wow, there's just nothing good here. There was always something worth finding. It's possible that the simple act of search and appreciate, followed by the opening of a CD case and the insertion of said CD into the stereo insured that I would always have a commitment to the music I was playing. The fact that it would take another few minutes to find another CD also made me stick with the one I was playing longer. The ipod has such a perfect interface, it makes fast-forwarding through slightly imperfect songs very tempting. Is that bad? I'm not sure. A lot of the best listening experiences have to do with discovery. To have too much control of the experience can limit that sensation.
Also, Netflix. You've made my movie-watching experience too easy, Netflix. How dare you?!? Netflix subscriptions generally work like this. You get one. You fill out a massive queue of movies and then wait for them to roll in. The first 10 you blaze through, sending them back the same day you get them, thinking to yourself, ha ha Netflix, this month, you're losing money! The next 10, you slow down a little, maybe even hanging on to that obscure documentary for a full three weeks but still rotating the other two titles regularly. The third 10: it's curtains. It takes a week or two just to get through one movie. You start to resent the red envelopes showing up in your mailbox and sitting on top of your TV. Yet because of your commitment to Netflix, you also don't go to the video store anymore. Is this what FreshDirect is like? Do you start enjoying your food less because you didn't go to the store to buy it yourself? Would I like Netflix better if the packages were harder to open?
I was once at a conference my company – a cable TV channel – was having, listening to their plans for the future. This was in 2000 and the industry was flush and full of money. I remember hearing the speakers talk about how with the advent of TiVO, it was going to be harder to get people to watch commercials and thusly give companies reasons to pay for commercials. Setting aside the fact that this kind of discussion is pretty dull for someone who likes uninterrupted movies on TV, I took note of their proposed method for circumventing this new device with an even newer device: The Internet Television. That wasn't actually its name but its goal was to consolidate your online experience with your broadcast experience, in their eyes increasing the potential for impulse buying ("Holy Shit, that guy on that show is eating a tasty sandwich. I am going to order a tasty sandwich from this online deli.") and relegating the commercials to the online space of the TV. My channel - which is part of a bigger company - was going to roll out this device itself and assumed that doing so would ignite a buyer's frenzy. It's possible that other things grabbed their attention but after that conference and a few weeks of buzz, the device never really made it, caught on or took over the market. With little evidence, I always assumed that the product made life TOO easy. People who sit on the couch watching a lot of TV, I think, like to at least have the option of going online in another room of the house or if in the same room, at least, diverting their eyes to a different screen and replacing their remote with a keyboard.
I have to say that condemning two things I actually do enjoy like the ipod and Netflix is a little crazy (maybe the Internet TV is actually the key to happiness). As is arguing against progress. You can't argue for progress to stop. You generally can't identify what you've got as just right (I once thought my imac of several years ago was the fastest I would ever need a computer to be. Then I started rendering things... overnight.) If you're lucky, you can tell when you've got too much and then hopefully, you just have to reconfigure your perspective and take advantage of it. If there's more progress to make, it's probably better you embrace it, try it, and if it helps, use it. If it don't, go back to making your own paper and powering your lightbulb with a bicycle. Saving time is great provided you have things you want to spend that time on. Maybe that's my complaint. My argument is with myself. On days when I'm deep in my ipod and watching my scratched Netflix disc of Team America, my frustration is based in the time I'm saving and not using, that instead of using, I'm applying to further shortcuts. The shortcuts sack my joi de vivre and I end up not liking the music I own or the opportunity to watch movies delivered to my door. Man, I sound lame. I'm not trying to argue a techno-philosophy. Basically, I heard someone say they were sick of their ipod and in the past I'd found myself feeling the same, irrational way. Human perception, you crazy!
There was an old Mad Magazine where Earth in 20,000AD consists of little atrophied blobs who ride around in bubble cars (the fifties version of future cars always involved spheres) and have everything they could ever want within their little, weak arms' reach - the victims of a lifetime of unfettered progress. They had little propellers on their heads and very few teeth.
My point: If in the future, we're to wear little propellers on our heads and have very few teeth, it will be a bleak future indeed.