The Need for Utility: Tech vs. Hype

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Somewhere in the last 50 years we have, as a society, become extremely short-term minded. Bound by four-year election cycles, bi-annual upgrades, and built-in obsolescence, we have become obsessed with immediate gain over a long-term vision. This is never more apparent than in the world of technology, with the tech press salivating like a St. Bernard being taunted by a steak bone, at the prospect of the newest, hottest, coolest, most disruptive, game-changing, or innovative product to herald as its new darling. Our relationship with technology is summed up by upgradeable handsets, wearable trinkets, and throwaway gadgets to the point where we fail to see the real power for transformative change that technology possesses.

Roy Amara summed this phenomenon up in what is now known as Amara’s Law, stating that we overestimate the effect of technology in the short-term and underestimate it in the long-term. The MiniDisc, a mid-90’s techno-flop, is a perfect illustration of this point. In 1997 we were caught up in a MiniDisc frenzy – we were convinced that this format would kill the CD, and we would be destined to a future dominated by brightly-colored miniature floppy discs. Four years later, Apple released the first iPod. Six years after that, Apple released the first iPhone. Back in 1997, we were certain that transferring CD collections onto Mini Discs was a good idea – we had no idea that in just 10 years’ time, the sight of a standalone music player would garner serious side-eye from peers.

Our fascination with what is “new and next” is so deep that even those who work in advertising fall into ‘techno-fetishism.’ Ad-Land is a graveyard of technology’s unfulfilled promises and overinflated expectations. To fully capitalize on disruptive technologies, we need to understand the behavioral change needed before consumers fully adopt a new form of interacting with brands – or the world.

Once a piece of technology normalizes its way into our lives, it ceases to become technology and starts to become an expectation. Our phones are so much extensions of ourselves that we depend on them like a third limb,  We demand that our technology is fully functioning and constantly renewed to the point that we fail to see the technical brilliance and world-changing innovation that lies within each handset – or the longer term implications of how they are shaping our future.

Business Magnate and Engineer Elon Musk is someone who truly understands the impact of what technology can do for humanity. At first glance, he appears to be every bit the real-life Tony Stark (Ironman) that the media plays him out to be. Under the surface, however, he is a man with a clear and singular vision: he wants humans to be the first ever multi-planetary species. While interest in the Tesla Model 3 sent the blogosphere into hyperdrive at its launch this past April, what is more interesting is Musk’s long-term vision, which every one of his constituent companies plays into perfectly.

If you haven’t heard of Virtual Reality or Oculus Rift by now, you have been living under a rock for the past 14 months. After decades of promise, VR has arrived. Despite Oculus hogging many of the column inches –partly due to its acquisition by Facebook in 2014 – the really interesting development within this space is that of Magic Leap who raised an astonishing $793.5M of Series C funding, valuing them at $4.5B, all before they released their first product. Magic Leap are proponents of a concept called Mixed Reality (MR), something that sits halfway between Virtual (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) a concept which could change the way that humans and technology interact with each other. Our interaction with other human beings is now a predominantly digital affair. MR is changing this by allowing digital communications to play out in the physical spaces around us. Microsoft’s HoloLens product is also making serious headway in this space, and alongside Magic Leap, we are defining a user interface for the real world, potentially changing the way we interact not only with our devices, but also with each other.

It is unlikely that we will ever cease to take technology for granted. In a way, isn’t that the beauty of it? It weaves itself into the fabric of our lives to the point where we no longer notice it. The technologies today that seem like shiny toys or luxury features will go on to become the canvases of our futures, or if they serve no purpose, they will crash and burn in their own hype. It is, after all, the job of entrepreneurs and scientists to keep developing disruptive technologies. It is up to industry commentators and the media to whirl up a storm of hype, but only those with long-term benefits and utility will truly stand the test of time and be deemed worthy.

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