"More than machinery, we need humanity."
Here is a question: have you heard about the new smartphone that’s being released?
Here is a completely legitimate way to answer the above question: which smartphone do you mean?
Though this may appear to be a somewhat playful, or even silly, exchange – it is offered here in full sincerity. After all, it seems that the headlines in the technology section are frequently filled with stories about new types of smartphones and/or the unveiling of the latest iteration of a particular popular brand. Bear in mind, it was not that long ago that people were all worked up about the latest iPhone and the gasp inducing fact that it did not feature a headphone jack. Yet the iPhone Seven’s glorious moment atop the heap of “newest” smartphones has proven to be particularly short lived. For it has been displaced by the entry of a new combatant into the device game – and lest there be any doubt about it, this new competitor is declaring war on multiple fronts.
For Google (or it Alphabet?) has charged into the fierce melee for dominance of the device game.
Indeed! Google has a phone of its own! The Pixel! It has a nice screen! It has a camera that is slightly better than the cameras on the phones made by its competitors! It will store even more photos than the phones made by its competitors! It features a super fancy assistant that will be even more helpful to you than the assistant available on phones made by its competitors! It will feature a 3.5 mm headphone jack unlike the new phone being sold by one of its competitors! There’s also a wi-fi router that’s slightly more impressive than those made by its competitors and a box for streaming content that (you guessed it) is slightly more impressive (and slightly less expensive) than those made by its competitors! And all of these products will work wonderfully together! Oh boy!
And yet, if we are being perfectly honest about it…how utterly banal.
A new smartphone with more memory and a slightly better camera? A whole ecosystem of products that are designed to function seamlessly together? Doesn’t this all seem rather familiar?
It is always important to treat the self-aggrandizing lingo of technology companies with a mountain of skepticism, but to look upon the things that Google has revealed is enough to make one feel a slight nostalgia for bold pronouncements about “revolutionary” new products. Such hubris may be comical, annoying, and easy to expose as just so much nonsense, but there’s something vaguely refreshing in its earnestness. Instead, what Google is offering to consumers is just more of the same. All of these things are already pretty much available. Google has clearly decided that the time has come for it to try and snap up a chunk of the device market – and the specs of the Pixel make it clear that Google wants to take on Apple as a maker of high-end devices. The Pixel is ultimately a heck of a lot like the iPhone, but that is not the only déjà vu inducing doodad on display: Google Assistant is quite similar to Siri, the Google Home device bears more than a passing resemblance to Amazon’s Echo, the VR headset that the Pixel slides into certainly makes one think of VR headsets like the Oculus (owned by Facebook), the wi-fi router isn’t too different from other sleek routers, and the Chromecast Ultra is pretty similar to a Roku box/Apple TV. Yes, Google has revealed a lot of “new” products, but it seems like the main thing about them which is “new” is that Google is making them. The whole to-do brings to mind Theodor Adorno’s quip, from Minima Moralia:
“The cult of the new, and thus the idea of modernity, is a rebellion against the fact that there is no longer anything new.” (Adorno, 250)
Google is overwhelming people with a vast assortment of new things, perhaps hoping that being overwhelmed will keep people from seeing how little about them is genuinely new. These products throw a stumbling block in front of Neil Postman’s “6 Questions to Ask of New Technology” by forcing one to consider what kinds of questions one needs to ask when there’s really very little new about the “new technology.”
Yes, Google is jumping into the proverbial deep end – but it has waited and watched carefully while others have tested the water for quite some time. Perhaps what all of these products actually reveal is that Google has learned a lesson from the failure of Google Glass. Now, Google Glass was always a pretty terrible idea – and some were happy to see Glass shatter – but to give credit where it’s due, at least Glass was a fairly bold idea. And while it is certainly true that Internet of Things devices like Amazon Echo (and its Google clone Google Home) as well as VR headsets are still in their early stages of catching on, it is worth noting that such devices have not been met with the same opprobrium that Glass faced. Are there legitimate privacy concerns to be raised about allowing a huge tech company to always be listening in your home? Sure. Do VR headsets make their users look silly? Sure. Yet, neither of those things have run into the same kind of resistance that was once perfectly captured with the term “glasshole.” And on a related note it should be remembered that one device that was missing from the cornucopia spilled out by Google was any type of wearable device – perhaps, Google is watching the floundering sales of the Apple Watch and figuring that it should stay away. On the one hand, it is easy to see Google trying to compete on the level of devices as being extremely forward looking on the part of the company, but to think about what Google is really offering is to see just how conservative a step this is at present. Another slightly different smartphone, another slightly different IoT device, another slightly different AI assistant, another slightly different VR headset, another…well, you get the idea.
All of which raises another question: do the similarities that are becoming ever more evident between the offerings of major tech firms enable us to better detect the borders of contemporary technological civilization? It is not a question that results in a neat affirmative or negative answer. However, it may be fair to view Google’s line of devices as a case of the tech industry telling itself (and by extension the rest of society) which things are going to be the defining features going forward. These are the outlines, and it is worth being aware of them, as these are the outlines which tech firms are hoping to keep people (like you) within. Thus, it appears that the smartphone is going to continue to be the essential device – Google trying to break into this market is a pretty clear statement that, in the estimate of tech companies, the smartphone will still be the passport by which one travels through technological society. While IoT devices (like Google Home) and VR headsets seem to focus around reconfiguring the intimate sphere of technological usage (the home) instead of the public sphere (where things like Glass were deemed problematic) – the smartphone is the gadget people engage with in public. Yet if you really want to see where tech companies are putting their predictive power it seems that the aspect to pay most attention to is the Google Assistant (similar to Siri) – which will be important to the Pixel and Google Home. It is the latest effort to make computing a bit more ubiquitous even as it makes the machines fade into the background – why take out your phone when you can just say “OK Google…”?
At the launch event, Gummi Hafsteinsson (the product management director for the Google Assistant team) recounted a tale of using Google Assistant to learn how to cook an eggplant, and then to set a timer for the cooking of that eggplant. Which is all well and good, but are there not lots of other ways to learn how to cook an eggplant? And when it comes to cooking might you not be better off having the instructions written down in front of you (even if they’re on a computer screen) so you don’t have to keep asking “OK Google” for a reminder?
But the story has nothing to do with eggplants, and everything to do with relying on technology to solve ever more of our problems – no matter how minute they may be. The message remains: the more spheres of your life which you let technology firms invade, the happier you will be – existential fulfillment is always just the right smartphone away. And thus, the bevy of sleek and shiny devices unveiled by Google are simply the latest case of a technology company pushing that same old ideology under the guise of a slightly different product.
Or to put it more simply, Google is not offering anything new.
Adorno, Theodor. Minima Moralia. Verso, 2005.