Libraries, Archives, Technology, Impending Doom
It seems that hardly a week goes by that does not involve some smiling executive standing before the cameras proudly unveiling their company’s latest device, gizmo, doodad, operating system, or “revolutionary” new piece of technology. Sometimes amidst the frenzied excitement of tech conferences (SXSW/CES) or the lead up to the ferociousness of the holiday shopping season these announcements can form quite the impressive pile – though sometimes the announcements come at rather random times, like early April. Though most tech firms are wise enough to know that April 1st is not necessarily the best day to unveil a new product.
Thus it was on April 2, 2014 that Microsoft revealed their fancy new Windows Phone 8.1 Operating System – which boasts an impressive voice activated assistant (named “Cortana”); while on the very same day Amazon held the launch for their streaming platform “Fire TV” – which will allow users to stream movies, tv shows, play games, and use other popular streaming services (such as Netflix and Hulu).
Clearly these are exciting, game changing devices! Right! Right!? Right?
Well…yes and no. It is a folly to blithely dismiss of Windows’ new operating system or Amazon’s streaming box. Reading the various excited articles from the tech press suggests that there are features in these new devices that are in some ways improvements over other similar products to be found for sale. Indeed, Cortana could prove to be a true rival to Google Now and Apple’s Siri (and it certainly has a built in level of “geek credibility” as Cortana pulls its name from the Halo franchise); while Fire TV may be the next step in the “streaming box” battle (it has many more features than ChromeCast and seems to be a bit more “open” than Apple’s Apple TV). Yet these very comparisons help dredge up the nagging question that nips around the edges of every new OS and every new streaming device, namely: what’s the point?
Granted, that question is clearly meant in a rhetorical/bemusedly hyperbolic sense. After all, the point of these devices is to do a better job fulfilling the functions of an OS/streaming box/whatever and thereby deliver a better experience to the consumer. Right? Right. Yet, this in and of itself demonstrates that “the point” ultimately has more to do with the battle between the various tech firms for control of the market: Microsoft wants its OS to be able to better compete with Google’s Droid and Mac OS; while Amazon clearly wants its Fire TV to be able to compete with ChromeCast, Roku, and Apple TV (with a slight irony being that Fire TV is powered by Google’s Droid). And while these companies battle for supremacy the differences between the things being produced and sold may largely of the cosmetic variety. Ultimately it does not make a great deal of difference whether you stream Netflix through ChromeCast or Fire TV, whether you rent a movie through iTunes or the Amazon store, or whether you ask Siri or Cortana or Google or Samantha – it makes a difference to the company that will pocket the money – but the celebration of minor differences has more to do with convincing consumers to “pick me” rather than any “big picture” difference. Furthermore these minor differences are always signals of rival’s imperfections in such a way as to spur on the next round of blasé destruction known as “planned obsolescence” – as Langdon Winner observed:
“Because the automobiles, appliances, energy systems, prepared foods, cosmetics, and other products and services have been engineered to corrupt specifications, the good life begins to look like a colossal pile of junk.” (Winner, 77)
Here “corrupt specifications” refers to the parade of flaws in every new technology (which often have to do with speed) which sets an ever sooner “expiration date” on every new product. Windows 8.1 will be great…until 8.2 is unveiled, just as Fire TV will be great…until Apple responds by releasing the next version of the Apple TV.
Having succeeded (albeit marvelously) in creating a set of consumer-technology related problems (the need to have the newest devices) the tech industry has grown fabulously wealthy and powerful by continually offering new solutions to the problems that they themselves (or their quasi rivals) have created. It would be anathema to a tech company to release a truly finished piece of technology – not because such would be beyond the capabilities of such companies but because their financial future is dependent on managing to continually sell slightly different versions of essentially the same products. To the tech executive quip (a la Steve Jobs) that the role of tech companies is to tell people what they want (which conveniently happens to be what the tech companies want them to want) we see a sort of stasis wherein it seems that all that people “want” is more of the same. More streaming devices, more operating systems, more smart phones, more of the same and all of the desires can be met with slightly different devices. The techno-consumerist-utopia emerges, and what underlies this is an ideology that Theodor Adorno explained thusly:
“That all men are alike is exactly what society would like to hear. It considers actual or imagined differences as stigmas indicating that not enough has yet been done; that something has still been left outside its machinery, not quite determined by its totality.” (Adorno, 110)
At first glance there is something subtly appealing about rival companies announcing different versions of vaguely similar products. After all, is this not what freedom of choice is about consumer choice is about? A person can pick the Windows OS or Droid, a person can pick the Apple TV or Fire TV…but the choice between which (more or less) similar product to buy is ultimately a rather constrained and boring choice. Certainly one can always choose not to have a streaming device or a phone that requires an operating system (which is not the argument being advanced here) – but that is not a choice between products but a choice about the type of life one wants to lead. Whereas the unending parade of moderately different gadgets and doodads provides a range of buying options but is mainly interested in people’s choice as their ability to spend money. Technological society is willing to give people a staggering array of choices, as long as those choices keep people thoroughly connected to the choices technological society wants to offer. As Lewis Mumford observed:
“our machine-dominated society is oriented solely to ‘things,’ and its members have every kind of possession except self-possession.” (Mumford, 400)
Fire TV and the new Windows Phone OS may have some exciting functions and may be superior to their competitors in some genuine ways. Yet, when the excitement dies down, these devices are just more of the same.
Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia. Verso, 2005.
Mumford, Lewis. Technics and Civilization. University of Chicago Press, 2010.
Winner, Langdon. The Whale and the Reactor: A Search for Limits in an Age of High Technology. University of Chicago Press, 1986.