We don’t solve real problems anymore.

Yesterday, on the way home from work, I heard someone on the radio say, “The last thing we need are smartphones.” It was said as a quick aside. The larger conversation wasn’t about that, and it moved on quickly. But I kept thinking about it. I shut the radio off.

He is absolutely right. The last thing we need are smartphones.

What are we doing? I mean, really?

When did we start believing that the greatest problem we could solve was filling in every attention gap? The spaces between opportunities to consume information are getting smaller and smaller and yet we’re still pushing as an industry to fill them in completely! Why? What are we really working for? Why are drowning ourselves in information? Is there no value left in quiet? In the absence of things? In nothing?

How have we come to the place where it’s acceptable to maintain a constant indignance toward the slightest difficulty in accessing information? When a website isn’t responsive we scoff. Why? Because now I might have to use my fingers to pinch and zoom a webpage (honestly, is it not impressive we can do that) or (gasp!) wait a few minutes before I can get to my laptop and look at a webpage? What an outrage! And really, a few minutes might even be longer than average. I’d love to know what the average space — in time or distance — between devices is for the average American. I’d bet it’s almost nonexistent. Meanwhile, we completely take this for granted — how portable information really is, and how seamless our experience of it can be. I can be pretty much anywhere and still view a webpage, or read a book, or listen to music or the radio, or watch television or a movie. I hardly have to wait for anything. I can do any of these things on my laptop, or my tablet, or my phone. I can start watching a video on my phone in my living room, take it with me anywhere I like, switching between devices as I go. If that’s not complicated enough, I could beam that video from whatever device to my TV. It’s insane how ubiquitous entertainment can be. But we’re not satisfied. There’s still a holy grail to be had. That killer app or new piece of hardware. That thing that’s going to make everything even more seamless. Are we not going to be satisfied until every surface is a portal to entertainment? Until everywhere we go looks the same because we’ve projected on to it our personal information streams? Augmented reality is bankrupt. If that’s what we’re after, we might as well just stay home.

Another holy grail: trying to monetize our unproductive attention. Isn’t that a house of cards? How many billion people are on Facebook/Instagram or Google+ or Twitter right now and they still haven’t figured out how to make enough money to take them out of investment mode and into something real? I don’t know, people. I think maybe we can call it. We went there to be with each other; they figure while we’re there they’ll show us some ads. The investors think that someday someone will figure out a magic way to balance that equation. Don’t hold your breath.

What problem does Google Glass solve? It’s no problem that you or I have. The problem Google Glass solves belongs to Google: How to capture more attention. How to make more money. When a company’s product development no longer addresses the meaningful needs of consumers, it can do one of two things: (1) create new kinds of products that address needs in new markets. (I guess you could see Google’s self-driving car thing as fitting in this category, although you could also legitimately question whether anyone needs a self-driving car), or (2) create products that are purely luxury goods. Where would you honestly put Google? Do you see billions of dollars of investment being put toward building a better diamond? No. Because luxury is tied to scarcity, and large-scale investment is better put toward things that can be mass-adopted. Google Glass is a luxury product. When will we get a clue?

We don’t need self-driving cars. We need safer and more efficient transportation, sure. But that ideally comes in a blended form — one part self-driving car (you know, so we can look at our phones instead of the road), one part mass transportation, one part bicycle, one part walking. This is why cities are great. Population density presents all kinds of opportunity for efficient and communal use of resources. If the suburbs didn’t exist, we could live in the city and farm in the country. A few of us could farm, a few of us could transport the food in to the city, and the rest of us could live and work in the city. Think about how many fewer cars there would be. (Overly and incompetently simplified, I know. But it’s the thought that counts.)

Maybe it’s time we found some other problems to solve. It’s not like there isn’t an abundance of them!

What about energy? It’s pretty clear we haven’t figured that one out. There will never be enough wind turbines or solar panels to stop us from burning stuff to keep our screens on, so we might want to give that one a look. What about food? Our country is a mess. We we waste most of our calorie production feeding livestock and automobiles. We’ve got an obesity problem. We throw out enormous quantities of food. Meanwhile some of our own citizens starve. It’s absurd. What about water? What about sustainable materials? Good lord, there are problems to solve. But we’re spending billions on fantasy worlds in the cloud.

The truly sad thing is that we’re locked in to this. Our economy rewards myopia. Meaningful progress would create poverty in the short term! What if we decided to make better clothing — stuff that actually lasts and doesn’t rely upon slave labor to be cheap? We’d buy fewer clothes. The industry would shrink. People would lose jobs. Same thing in virtually every consumer market. Our whole system relies upon throwaways. We’re all about quantity, which doesn’t just drive quality down figuratively. It actually reduces lasting value. The only value we have is in keeping this do-nothing-machine running.

Oh, and there are no “first-world problems.” There are only problems. The first-world is just ignoring them.

Written by Christopher Butler on February 19, 2014,   In Essays

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