TechKnow: Constant Digital Craving

TechFlop: Has it all gone a little pear shaped?

This recent Christmas most of us no doubt bought things no one really wants, and many things no one really keeps. It is true that today most of us buy our lifestyles, we associate ourselves with the brands that are akin to the person we want to be. Although people have been encouraged to identify with brands since the dawn of advertising, it is now quite established that the presents many of us gave and received were (expensive) technology-based products. Gone are the days when books and socks would suffice. Today the child wants whizzing robotic toys with bright lights; the teenager wants the latest mp3 player or other portable electronic gadget; and the young professional wants his Macbook, Vaio, or Blackjack smartphone. I know that if I didn’t practice Islam and was getting Christmas presents, technological products would probably cover all the top 10 gifts on my list.

With all this technology around, you would think the reason why we are buying into this culture is because tech-enabling our lives has made them super-sonic-bionic complete. However from the conversations that I recall between Kimberly and myself, ‘satisfied’ is the last thing we are. We are on a constant prowl for that ever-elusive ‘life-changing’ gadget that will satisfy our every desire, end the often-disappointing search and improve our lives to no end. From the latest smartphone that has all the features we require, to the most stylish bag that will allow us to carry all the gadgets; we always want something better. Technology moves faster than a bulimic catwalk model running to the toilet. Yet, instead of satisfying our needs, it has created this ever gaping hole, which can only be satisfied by the next biggest, bestest, greatest upgrade.

So why haven’t we removed our blinkers yet? Why are we still following the carrot down the path of tech enlightenment? Do we not realise that the goods aren’t being delivered as described from the Promised Land? Why do we allow ourselves to be fooled: the razor doesn’t shave closer ‘cos it now vibrates and has six blades; it just costs £6 more.

As avid a fan as I am of technology, and as much as I love to obsess about it, I’m going to expose technology for the creep that it is in the hope that next time maybe you won’t to give in. Maybe you’ll stand back and think, “Do I really want to create a gaping hole in my life that can only be filled by yet another expensive tech-product?” Here are my worst tech moments of 2006.

Second Life

I absolutely hate Second Life because I think everyone should be out living his or her First Life. No matter what I think of the game, it hasn’t been out of the news over the last quarter. Membership to Second Life has soared to about two million users, increasing demands on the servers to around 18,000 users a time, causing a problem for Linden Labs who can’t keep up. I do not know why the media has gone crazy about Second Life. To me it’s just an online game, but slightly more interactive. I have a friend who is trying to set up a business online to try and make a living from the ‘game’. Thing is, to make anything close to a living income for your real life you need to earn a lotta, lotta Linden dollars.

I don’t criticise Second Life as an outsider — I created an account myself and played around with my avatar. I tried to understand why people might want to go around in these online virtual communities; I’d be lying if I said I understood. Second Life does use a lot of creative talent within the game from the users in the game who create most things, which I can understand. But for many it’s just brothels and straight men’s ideas of S&M lesbian clubs. I’ll eat my muddy wellies if Second Life takes over the Internet.

Microsoft Zune

It must be terrible to be a Zune. I’m not going to ramble on about the wonders of the iPod because I don’t think the iPod is the greatest invention ever simply because it’s the most popular music player on the market. But, boy, the Zune sucks. I can now see that it must be hard to always be the bridesmaid, but never the bride. I’m not having a dig at Microsoft simply because I choose to use Apple products. To beat the market leader a company has to innovate, and this won’t happen with a rushed knockoff concept. The Zune is a let down for many: installation problems plagued the first release; the product isn’t compatible with Microsoft’s new operating system Vista; it no longer supports Microsoft’s own standard PlaysForSure; and the wireless song sharing is a total letdown. Until the whole world has a Zune, you’ll have to buy a second one to send songs wirelessly to yourself. I don’t see a future where people on the tube take their earphones off to share music. The Zune won’t be spreading musical love between passengers on the London Underground’s Central Line at peak times this Christmas.

HD (High-Definition) Ready LCD TVs

I don’t know why LCD TVs are all the rage. You need to spend two to five times the money of a regular TV to even get close to the picture quality of a CRT. You don’t get the really good stuff until you get to the top end, which can run in to thousands. Is it really worth all that money to save a few inches and get an inferior picture?

On top of that, this Christmas in the UK, HD-ready TVs are being given the push. Freeview is the digital broadcast service that gives extra channels through your aerial at no extra cost. This was so successful last year in the UK; many people have switched their provider from subscription-based Sky to Freeview. For most people, though, Freeview won’t be going HD for at least another five years. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport need to get everyone off analogue to digital and switch the analogue transmitters off before they consider getting HD on. The cable and satellite alternatives are Sky or Telewest, but with the appalling choice of HD channels and high costs (installation and monthly), very few people are going to pay the money fee to receive The Discovery Channel in glorious HD. Most people have no need for one…yet.

Wearable Displays

This is one example of technology come too early, and there are quite a few manufacturers on the market already. It may be that most people will be using these in their daily lives in the distant future, with each of us seeing the world the way we want through pre-programmed glasses. They could become part of the deal when you fly First Class; as a personal entertainment package that doesn’t allow your seat-neighbour to be looking over at what you’re watching trying to make conversation. These aren’t huge “I’m going to Miami shades.” No. These big ol’ things are goggles you wear that emulate sitting in front of a large screen television (from 50 – 100 inches in size) by way of some 3D imaging gadgetry. The idea being you connect your PDA, video player, laptop, or even the One Laptop Per Child if you’re one of the lucky African kids who gets one, and watch your movies or TV in cinema colour wherever you go. Virtually any video source can be connected and you get the picture slapped in front of your eyes. Sure you might not see where you’re going, spot the mugger coming to rip them off your face, or see the gadget fiend steal your display-wearing child but that doesn’t matter. You’ll be in big screen video heaven. Great stuff.

Technology Clothing

Imagine the scene, you’ve got your iPod in your jeans pocket and you want to change the tune. Forgive me for asking you to take it out and press the controls on the front. Oh no. You need a pair of Levis Red Wire DLX jeans. These jeans come with a removable patch with iPod controls and built in retractable earphones. You plug your iPod in to the dedicated pocket and you never have to remove it again. Just plug the jeans into the wall to charge — whoops, sorry, Levis hasn’t gotten that far, yet.

Levis should have built in a retractable, wearable display (as above) so you can actually see the iPod screen and watch shows off the iPod video. Now that would have been a killer product. I’m sure they will sell a ton, but do we really need to pay for our jeans to perform a function other than covering the birthday suit?

— Yusuf Osman

The Right Gadget versus the Right-Now Gadget

Yusuf and I have often proclaimed our love of gadgets and technology in our TechKnow columns. Yet, we also talk, away from the column, about the things that bug us about our gadget dependency: the expense, the blatant planned obsolescence, the cables tangling at our feet, the desire for the perfect “gadget bag”, the slowness of our downloads, the elusive perfect smartphone, and any number of other gripes of our privileged lives.

We are not without reflection, though, and also question our lack of activism about social justice issues that really matter to us. If we were really motivated we could figure out how to use technology for social change. However, tellingly, we’d more likely be found at the Apple Store looking for yet another computer accessory than protesting outside the House of Parliament about being an accessory to death and destruction in Iraq.

We are slaves to “the idolatry of affluence”. Or at least that’s what media critic Norman Solomon would say. In his article “The Hollow Media Promise of Digital Technology”

( he links this idolatry with “the adulation heaped on pricey consumer goods…The great enthusiasm that’s expressed toward digital products often fits right into the common media reverence for what only money can buy.”

He goes on to note that each technological innovation that’s come along (radio, television, cable, the Internet) has promised democratization (“digital deliverance”) but failed to live up to those promises in the face of affluence. If money can solve all our problems and we can buy gadgets with money, then gadgets can solve our problems. We no longer need to teach a man to fish so that he may live. We give a child a laptop , but to what end? Is it bigoted thinking to place bets on how quickly a Third World child’s laptop will be stolen by ruthless adults and put to use in, say, identity fraud?

Alas, the damage we do with technology seems to always outstrip the good. The gap between the haves and have nots is vast and our justifications for having are rooted in increasingly warped logic. Whether one has technological needs or wants is based entirely on one’s place in the developed, developing or undeveloped worlds.

In early childhood I learned the difference between “want” and “need”. It’s Christmas, 1976 and I’m unable to sleep in anticipation of a black Tiffany Taylor doll. Sneaking out of bed on the pretense of having to pee, I wanted to see whether Santa delivered the goods yet. I could see into the living room. There by the Christmas tree I could see my aunt, recently moved to our town and bunking with us, putting out the gifts I’d asked for from Santa! There was shock. There was horror. I really did have to pee now. Returning to my bedroom, I realized then: there was no Santa. Hmph.

Unlike that wimp-ass little Susie Who of Whoville, I was quite mercenary in my six-year-old thinking. If they know that I know that there’s no Santa, I might not get what I want for Christmas. Things like fashion dolls and board games might give way to more of those things that mom thinks I need, like socks (ugh) and dresses for church (double ugh). At age six I knew that the best tactic was to keep feigning surprise that Santa liked the red and green sprinkled cookies I put out for him. Keep schtum and my playful wants would not turn into practical needs.

I need to take responsibility for growing away from that mentality of entitlement. There have been lapses in my media literacy. Without being cognizant of it, gadgets and technology have become the needs and news in my life. I’m of the opinion that news is something we need to make changes in our collective lives. But, with the advent of 24-hour news, producers fill time with what they think audiences want. As I noted on my most recent trip back to the US, actual change-your-life news is scarce. The quotes that crawl across the bottom of the TV screen on CNN announce Britney’s divorce from Kevin. The local news program shows queues for the new Wii that look like well-heeled, well-fed soup kitchen lines. Screw the soup – little Oliver wants a PS3. Technology stocks have moved from being business headlines to being the main news. The conflation between “real news and not-news is now complete. Or is it?

Can we still resist becoming a part of Star Trek’s Borg or Dr. Who’s Cybermen? Maybe, Neo, we like being in The Matrix and prefer the blue pill. Writing this column was one attempt at resistance. I’ve tried to point out the highs and lows of our technological culture, but felt like I’ve always ended on a downbeat. Luddite or hypocrite? That’s the continuing tension. It’s been good to write in partnership with Yusuf because he is, more often than I, the upbeat. Together let’s hope we’ve taken part in offering critical and celebratory views that encourage PopMatters readers to interrogate what we want for our world from technology. Let’s dig deep and admit the what we truly need to live better, more ethical lives through better – not more — technology.

— Kimberly Springer

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Editor’s note: This is the final installment of Kimberly Springer and Yusuf Osman’s PopMatters’ column, ” TechKnow“, while Kimberly delves into writing a book, and Yusuf hits the law books. “TechKnow” will remain in PopMatters’ archives for your reading pleasure.

June 2019: Minor updates have been made to this article (images, layout, tags).

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