(First published in Stuff regional papers and on Stuff.co.nz., January 23.)
I see the technology industry is readying itself for something called 5G – geek-speak for the fifth generation of cellular mobile communications.
I can’t wait. I’m jumping out of my skin with excitement.
I jest, of course. I’m an IT agnostic who has learned not to trust technology. If the digital revolution has taught us anything, it’s that supposed innovations and improvements come loaded with fishhooks and frustrations.
We’re told 5G will provide “high data rate, reduced latency, energy saving, cost reduction, higher system capacity and massive device connectivity”.
Translated, I suspect that means there will be incremental gains in terms of speed and capacity that most everyday users probably won’t even notice. Just like the people who invested in ultrafast broadband and later wondered why they bothered.
Oh, and there will be teething problems. There always are. So expect a lot of hype when 5G is launched, but expect to be disappointed too, because the history of the IT industry is littered with false promises.
It’s an industry that depends heavily on credulous consumers who are always ready to be sucked in by the illusion of a technological nirvana. Just witness the queues that form outside Apple retail outlets whenever a new iPhone is launched.
Improvements on the previous models are often minimal or largely cosmetic. But there’s a good reason why Apple became the world’s first trillion-dollar company: it took the notion of planned obsolescence, which was originally associated with the car industry, and refined it to the max.
Planned obsolescence means that even as a new product is launched, the makers already have a better version on the blocks. Apple’s marketing department knows there are millions of suckers out there who are willing to believe the latest Apple device represents a quantum leap over the previous one and that life would be unbearable without it.
The flip side of the Apple story is that there are legions of users who tear their hair out with Apple products and vow never to use them again. But where can they go – to Microsoft? It’s probably the one company with more frustrated users than Apple.
That computer users are effectively at the mercy of these two grotesquely profitable companies is almost enough to shake your faith in capitalism. It’s a case of market failure on a massive scale.
Most punters would be happy just to have technology that works – something that’s consistent, user-friendly and doesn’t let them down. But IT users have been conditioned to accept a failure rate that wouldn’t be tolerated in any other industry.
Even when a company delivers something you actually like, be prepared to have it taken away from you or changed into something different.
I won’t bore readers again with my story of how, when I wasn’t looking, Microsoft uninstalled the only version of Windows that I ever liked and gave me a new one that I didn’t want and didn’t ask for.
Suffice to say that it was like waking up one morning to find that the car I’d been driving for years, and which performed to my satisfaction, had been snatched away and replaced with an updated model that bore little resemblance to the previous one and drove like a pig.
More recently, a similar thing happened with Skype. For years I was a contented Skype user, enjoying face-to-face conversations with people in the most unlikely places. Then something happened.
Skype suddenly looked and felt different. The settings were unfamiliar. I couldn’t make it work. Christmas passed without the usual video conversations with family overseas.
I heard the same complaint from other users, including Generation X-ers whom I regard as totally tech-savvy. So it wasn’t just me.
The finger of blame was pointed (surprise!) at Microsoft, which owns Skype and which (I’m quoting from Wikipedia) “redesigned its Skype clients in a way that transitioned Skype from peer-to-peer service to a centralised Azure service and adjusted the user interfaces of apps to make text-based messaging more prominent than voice calling”.
I think what that means is that Microsoft took a product that worked to people’s satisfaction and stuffed it up. As it does.
The bigger issue here is that society has become totally beholden to information technology, with all its failings. Like it or not, we’re all passengers on a train that’s hurtling at increasing speed toward an unknown destination. And meanwhile the so-called digital divide, which separates those who are at ease in this new world from those who can’t keep up, grows ever wider.
I can think of no other technological revolution that has so completely penetrated people’s lives or influenced human behaviour, and I’m less confident than ever that this is a good thing. If that makes me a Luddite, so be it.