Seems no matter where you look these days, some Apple device or other is occupying the technology headlines. Whether it’s the iPhone, the iPad or the new social networking technology for music Ping, new Apple products always make a huge impact, and its very interesting to see the reactions that users have to them – it seems there are very few moderates, those expressing opinions seem to be either fanatical acolytes or vitriolic haters. Not that this is anything new – the whole Mac vs PC was probably the instigator of the very first internet flame war. Despite the title of this article I’m not wearing either hat, however I am singling out the iPad as an example of what is becoming technology’s biggest failing – when the technology becomes more important that the task it accomplishes.
The view of many – and its one that I share – is that technology should be invisible. It should be like the very best of butlers, carrying out a whole raft of difficult and/or tedious tasks behind the scenes while remaining unseen, allowing the lord of the manor (ie, me) to breeze about my day blissfully unaware of all the hard work going on in the background. My virtual shoes will always be cleaned and laid out, beds made and food delivered. I don’t want to know about kitchens, sculleries or chimneys.
Where technology becomes visible it starts to create an effect of its own, and this is where my own personal experience comes in. As a recording engineer I rely on technology, and it is very clear that the less intrusive it is, the better the results. A prime example is microphones. In order to record any performer, you have to place a microphone in front of them, or their instrument. Suddenly, the use of the technology to record them influences their performance; the singer becomes intensely aware of the microphone in front of their face, the drummer’s kit is festooned with the things. The microphones themselves make the performance more difficult and less natural. The more I can hide the mics or use discreet ones and reduce the sense of being observed, the more natural the performance.
It doesn’t stop there either. Once musicians are aware that I’m recording on a computer, their expectations change. They expect me to be able to edit ad infinitum, to Autotune, to give them infinite tracks that can be
cobbled edited together later. Retune, retime, replace seem to be the 3 Rs of modern music. And knowing this affects performances. So I spend an inordinate amount of energy trying to hide the fact that I’m using a computer, which is nigh on impossible when the entire design of an iMac is practically screaming out “I’M A MAC! WORSHIP MY DESIGN” at the top of its silicone lungs.
I don’t care about your design. Your design distracts from what I am doing. It focuses the attention on the aesthetics, the lovely screen, the resolution, the little bouncing icon in the dock that says that either Logic is just about to crash again, or another security update is required for the browser that I don’t use. Apparently people may hack in and steal my vocals. I don’t care about the operating system, or the integration with a MyLife suite, because the only thing I need is the application I’m actually using. Don’t tell me “It just works”. That’s not a selling point, it is the very least I expect from any technology. Application is king, everything else is just frosting. There was a lot to be said for the dowdy beige boxes of yesteryear that seemed to hide themselves away of their own accord.
Congratulations, your son’s first toddling steps have just been upstaged by your fauxputer.
So why does the iPad deserve to be singled out as the poster-child for technology’s egotism? Because it’s almost the pinnacle of design-distracting-from-function. Most of its functionality is banal in the extreme; its an email checking, websurfing media centre, with a large proportion of its applications simply querying the internet for information and returning it in an easily digestible format. However rather than simply being a transparent information portal, it touts itself as so much more, the Way Forward for Computing,
and using the iPad itself becomes the experience. It is designed to make people coo and cluck over the device itself, the scrolling, the zooming, the reorientation, making the technology more important than the information it is conveying. Don’t believe me? Ask anyone who has used an iPad to show off photos to friends. You cannot show them the photographs without showing off the iPad. It may be wedding photos, or new baby photos, or other landmark memories such as the time Granny got arrested for getting naked in Debenhams. It doesn’t matter, because its much more likely that the audience will more fascinated by the iPad than the photos. I’ll stake my car keys that the first question that gets asked is “Can I have a look at that?”. You hand it over and they’re off, marvelling at surfing the web and guffawing at your music collection. Congratulations, your son’s first toddling steps have just been upstaged by your fauxputer.
This is starkly contrasted by Amazon’s Kindle e-Book reader. Open a book on the Kindle and it presents it in a traditional book-like format; its screen looks damn near paper-like, with no glaring screen light. It seems to be trying it’s hardest not to be noticed, to conceal the fact that you’re using an electronic device and not reading a book made from murdered conifers, and it genuinely succeeds. You don’t think about the technology until after the event, your focus remains on the words on the page, which is exactly what it should be doing. Your book has just been invisibly butlered to you.
For my role in music recording, the technology zenith occurred when portable computers became powerful enough to achieve all the tracking, editing and mixing tasks I needed. We’re comfortably past this point now, and it’s a shame to see the technology take a step back. And anything that gives less performance is a step backwards. There are now recording apps available for the iPad, but as a device it is so underpowered they are unusable. Being able to record 2 tracks of audio at once, up to a maximum of 16, with no real mixing or effects should be ridiculed in this day and age. But people are crowing over it because it is an iPad doing it, not because it’s a decent – or even useful – application. The technology has become more important than the task. It feels like getting excited over a car with a maximum speed of 20mph that can’t reverse just because it’s made out of beans and has a Ferrari badge.
Technology is in for a tough time over the next few years. Functionality will decrease as we’re pitched the idea that tablets should replace more powerful computers. There will be form factor wars, design-offs. We’re already knee-deep in mobile phones that can do half the tasks you use a computer for, but have grown in size and have shoved being able to make a decent telephone call way down the priority list. We’re being sold ecosystem approaches where devices and technologies are no longer compatible between manufacturers. Technology came so close to being platform-independent and now its being segregated again, with manufactures ditching accepted standards in favour of their own so that now even websites are no longer fully accessible to users of certain devices. Technology is no longer striving to be the invisible enabler, it is trying to be an end unto itself, and this is likely to continue until, as consumers and professionals alike, we look past the marketing at devices that enable us to do new things, not just the same things in a different way, that allow us to do things our way, not just the manufacturers way, at ways of being completely platform independent and able to share and collaborate with others irrespective of where they are and what device they are using.
Maybe one day we’ll legitimately be able to announce “This changes everything” . Not yet though.