Instead of creating newer technologies, maybe it's time we rethink the ways we approach the gizmos we already have.
There are more Internet-connected devices in the world today than there are people (8.7 billion at the start of 2013). And as that number of devices balloons, many have speculated that when that total reaches 50 billion, there will no longer be any Internet spectrum left to connect with.
In a story for GigaOM, Microsoft's Stefan Weitz recently argued that as the variety of mobile Internet devices continues to spread, encompassing wristwatches, eyeglass frames, driverless cars, we'll accelerate toward the point of overcapacity, reaching it sooner than any of us think. And if that's the case, it possible that in a few years time, buying access to the slice of the Internet spectrum your devices need to connect to becomes as volatile as exclusionary, increasingly an affect of the privileged who can afford to pay for it.
In its own perverse way, wasteful non-productivity is what drives the obsession with increasingly faster and more complex phones, tablets, and computers.
One of Weitz's proposed strategies for avoiding this is to look for more efficient uses of older Internet technologies. For instance, he proposes building mobile apps that can prioritize their uses of mobile data and route simpler and less potentially important uses over slower frequencies, while reserving faster 4G frequencies for more productive uses. Updating your social network about your most recent workout through RunKeeper can spare a few minutes delay caused by a slow connection, and could be routed through an older 2G connection, while, say, a Skype call to a business partner in Taiwan would get priority use of the 4G connection.
One of the main problems with this approach is the fact that most major mobile service providers have been working toward shutting down their slower speed 2G networks because the cost of operating them has outweighed the profits they bring in. Advertising the efficient benefits of last generation’s technologies is cultural anathema to the tech industry, which has been driven by an obsession with newness, speed, and obsolescence since microprocessors became mass market in the late 1970s. And so our fantasies about what to expect from future technologies has veered ever closer to the miraculous, even though a real physical cap on their abilities exists.
With the looming end of Moore's Law hanging on the horizon, and the ever-nearing point of maxing out the capacity of the Internet spectrum, we could be on the verge of a cultural shift in how we think about technology.
Instead of imagining what new fantasies a design firm will conjure from its outsourcing supply chain, we may have to begin thinking more about intelligently using the limited capabilities of the technologies we have already.
There is an active though often unrecognized culture of extending the lifecycle of old technologies that favors efficiency and custodial respect for the limits of technology. A small group of hobbyists have kept Apple's 15 year-old Newton alive by making it a rugged GPS device for mountaineers.
For years, developing countries have had thriving markets for secondhand cell phones recycled from rich countries. This has led to a number of clever and practical uses for seemingly dead gizmos, including the ability to bank using SMS on even the oldest of phones. Considering how much basic functionality can be wrung from a 10-year-old Nokia brick might seem like a comfortable parable about the rugged ingenuity of the globally disadvantaged. It should also be a parable about how pointlessly wasteful and unnecessary most of the uses for our the newest technologies are.
In its own perverse way, wasteful non-productivity is what drives the obsession with increasingly faster and more complex phones, tablets, and computers. The speed of 4G mobile networks turn uploading photos to Instagram or the manic chatting of Tinder into near instantaneous tics that an otherwise bored person probably wouldn't stick around to wait for if the apps depended on a slow 2G network.
The inanity of huge swathes of Internet culture has become inseparable from how easy it is to access it, and were there more bottlenecks in the process of both accessing and creating content, its inanities would inevitably be de-intensified.
And while this great cultural shift from magical optimism in the new to respectful care and upkeep of the old is still far out on the horizon, there are occasional glimmers of it. This year, for instance, Apple chose to lower the clockspeed of its newest Macbook Air relative to the last year's model in order to offer double the battery life. In a way, the existence of the entire Air product line, and its even less powerful tablet cousins, can be taken as a reaction to computer power having surpassed the maximum threshold of usefulness for most people. These products are the beginning of a technological acknowledgment that maybe we have more than we need, but aren't yet ready to stop shopping for new things for fear of slowly slipping out of social relevance.
A similar moment will arrive for Internet usage itself. Unplugging has already become a form of ego-centrism for the hyper-rich, a melodramatic performance of self-importance not so different from enthusing about a next-gen computer trinket. This narcissism pathologizes the same things one was championing a few months earlier; it is the opposite of the humility and patience that will be necessary when not everyone gets a new phone every two years, triply powerful from the last one they had and running on a faster network. We're running out of space to access those distant fantasies, and so will have to readjust our daydreaming accordingly. Quad-cores and terabytes are for servers, not people.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.