The orthodoxy of the last decade has been to rush from technologically-powered convenience to convenience, from Napster's taking the cash and trip to the record store out of getting music, and Friendster's making the work of staying in touch with friends an act of passive surveillance, to the newest wave of portable computers that allow us to never be without Google and email, removing as much of the friction as possible from these technologies while not making no new arguments over their value. The debate over the value and meaning of these technologies is, for practical reasons, a closed matter when the most impassioned debates have moved on to access and usability.
"We think hardware is dead," Suneet Singh Tuli told MIT Technology Review in an interview this week. Tuli is head of a company making low-cost tablets in India, with hopes of one day being able to give them away for free while making money on ads and a proprietary app store. "Hardware has gotten cheap enough that restaurants or resorts should be giving customers tablets to walk away with for free. Hardware is becoming a customer-acquisition tool."
The smartphone market is the center of this transition in the West, with cellular service providers offering free or heavily subsidized phones to people willing to yoke themselves to a long-term contract. Your iPhone is magic, but it’s also the means by which AT&T and Verizon have acquired you for two years at a time. This is not cause to dismiss a technology or its providers outright, but it justifies constant skepticism of new developments that sell themselves primarily as convenience, doing something you were just as capable of doing before, only now relying on a computer algorithm to do most of it for you. The rationale beneath these developments is not an honest attempt to solve real problems within our daily lives, but a way to solve corporate problems, to ensure a solid and pervasive consumer relationship is maintained between user and provider, to minimize the tension between input and output, desire and reward, to merge the act of looking with the act of doing. In the old days thinking was required to connect sight to action, but if sight is capable of becoming action, thought has less and less purpose in our relationship with technology. We are slowly being surrounded by tools that make it easier to act on subconscious impulses and first reactions, and no one has yet made a convincing argument about why that should be seen as progress.