In terms of the vibe that radiates from my articles, I try to maintain a healthy mix of optimism and cynicism. “How to” and explanatory posts tend to be optimistic in nature, offering you a “hey, we can all do this” appeal. On the flip side, some of my most popular posts tend to be populist, cynical rants about corporate culture and office politics. I suspect they’re popular because of a shared catharsis that we can all experience together. Frustrated people love a good rant.
Today, I’d like to mix it up a little by offering what I believe will be an optimistic rant. I suspect that’s not something you see every day.
The subject of my ire, at the moment, is the now-ubiquitous skepticism about the so-called “Internet of Things.” I’ll allow that some of this probably has to do with buzzword fatigue and the cloying sound of marketing types saying, “dudebros, tomorrow’s chief digital officers are gonna IoT it up with some Raspberry Pis and rock out with some quadcopters!” That sort of thing will bring out the cynicism in any domain expert.
But I think it runs a little deeper than that and into a very selective form of quasi-Ludditism. Luddites are people who rail against new technology as if it were the bane of their existence, and no one in my feeds is doing that. But what I see instead, and what I’m calling “quasi-Ludditism,” is greeting the prospect of progress as if it were a gimmick with a failure guarantee.
Remember in 2010, when Apple’s stupid new form factor was a terrible idea and would obviously fail?
To be concrete about this, I recently saw a Tweet (can’t find it now, unfortunately) that lambasted an electronics company for putting a camera inside of a smart fridge. In response, seemingly dozens of techie folks chimed in, with witty variants of “awesome, I can watch my cheese go bad.” The group consensus seemed to be that a camera in the fridge was so gimmicky — so, in fact, stupid — that there was no need to rail against it because it would fall flatly and comically on its face.
And there I sat thinking, “here’s a use case I dreamed up in literally 3 seconds: you’re at the convenience store picking up a few things and you can’t remember if you’re out of milk or not. Old way: call your significant other and hope they’re home to ask. New way, find out in a few seconds by looking at your fridge’s contents.”
The fridge is a popular target. I remember similar lambasting occurring a year or two ago where people had fun with the absurdity of a fridge that could send text messages or tweet. Similarly, in that instance, there was high amusement with barbs like, “yeah, now we can automate boring everyone on social media with our food.”
And there I sat, thinking, “here’s a use case I dreamed up in literally 3 seconds: you get a text message saying, ‘the fridge door has been open for 5 minutes now, so you may want to check that it was left open accidentally.’ Old way: you get home to find your food spoiled. New way: you don’t.”
But what I find puzzling isn’t that people are thinking, “what would I need with a newfangled doo-dad that has a camera when my perfectly good current doo-dad does what it needs and get off my lawn and kids these days.” What I find puzzling is that techies seem to dominate this fist shaking (at least in my feed, which, I admit, may suffer from sampling bias).
Why is it that the segment of society upon whose shoulders the burden of innovation falls seems to be saying, “that’s new and new things are stupid!” Doesn’t that seem somehow troubling?
I’m not suggesting that any idea of “let’s tack X onto Y” is a good one that should be given consideration and air time. If that were true, Sky Mall would still remain a thriving channel for the purchase of curios. There are bad ideas and lots of them. There is also stupid marketing and lots of it.
What I am suggesting is that we stop letting the existence of bad ideas and cheesy marketing hanger-ons color our default response to ideas. I am suggesting that perhaps you shouldn’t be reflexively ridiculing something as useless when I can effortlessly think of a practical use for it in seconds. Though it’d be pleasant to believe otherwise, I am simply not that divergent of a thinker.
As techies and technologists, we carry the responsibility of dreaming up things that others assume impossible. We carry the responsibility of turning those dreams into prototypes and then turning those prototypes into nascent products. We carry the responsibility of building plugins, extensions, and apps for those nascent products and turning them into lifeblood of our increasingly wired world. Let’s live up to those responsibilities instead of laughing at those that are trying.