Essays on Technology and Culture

Mine Is Better Than Yours

A lot of people I follow in tech gush over high-end cameras. When I see a piece on cameras, I just zone out, and it all becomes a sea of meaningless technical terms: mirrorless micro four-thirds full-frame DSLR with pancake lens at f/32 aperture… whatever. The camera on my iPhone 5S is more than good enough for the few photos I take of my life. I have to wonder if the geek obsession with high-end cameras is, in part, because point-and-shoot digital and smartphone cameras have become good enough for the average person. When I read articles defending the purchase of fancy cameras, there’s a recurring mantra of “you’ll regret it when your kids grow up and all you have are cell phone pictures.” I don’t know about other people in my age group, but I remember growing up with albums of badly exposed 35mm prints from point-and-shoot film cameras. My parents didn’t mind, and I doubt the parents of most other people my age minded either.

As the baseline quality of various goods increases, there’s always going to be an audience that demands something “better” for whatever reason. The criteria of “better” varies, but among the geeky, tech-savvy population, “better” has a specific meaning. “Better” used to mean higher specs: more memory, more disk space, faster graphics, but specs in consumer tech have become almost meaningless in the last few years. We’re at a point where you can buy a computer that’ll do all the things the average person needs to do for pocket change, comparatively. It’s not good for corporate profit margins, but you can find a machine, even one that isn’t crawling with privacy-invading, performance destroying crapware, for less than half the price of a base 11-inch MacBook Air. Hell, there’s a perfectly serviceable Windows 8 tablet you can buy for $80. You don’t have to spend four figures on a new computer, if you don’t want to, let alone a smartphone or other device.

In response, for geeks “better” is about less quantifiable things, like taste. While I’m probably the last person who would recommend a Samsung phone, I’m not about to bash the taste of a Samsung owner. [1] When certain tech pundits—Jim Dalrymple and John Gruber especially—start calling people who buy certain products idiots, or claiming a covered micro-USB port on the back of a smartwatch is a mark of bad taste, they’re losing the thread. It’s not that Samsung customers are idiots, or the designer of the Sony Smartwatch has no taste, it’s that their priorities are in a different place. Maybe the person on the subway with a Samsung phone just needed a smartphone, and that’s the one the sales guy at the carrier store got a SPIFF for flogging, and they were in no mood to comparison shop? For some people, a phone is a phone. It’s not a question of “taste.”

It’s not hard to extend this to other geeky obsessions with quality: fussy coffee prepared fussily, artisanal notebooks and fountain pens, perfectly clear ice cubes for your cocktails [2], high-end audio equipment, and fancy bags for carrying all your fancy shit around. And I’m not immune to this phenomenon either. Though I don’t drink fussy coffee, or use a fountain pen, I have a fancy, artisanal pocket notebook I keep in an equally artisanally crafted leather cover. I collect records, and listen to them on a fancy turntable, on audiophile headphones with a “flat frequency response” through a tube amp. Why? I like the sound and the experience of listening to music on vinyl. A dollar store notebook, or a stack of index cards would serve my writing fine. I’m sure that I wouldn’t notice any difference if I was running my turntable’s audio through a solid state, digital amplifier, but I went with the tube amp. Despite vinyl being an inferior format for replicating audio.

There’s nothing wrong with liking the crazy, fancy stuff us geeks like. We can’t control our obsessions, but we can control how we communicate them to others. Smug superiority gets us nowhere. The elitism that too often creeps into any discussion of our obsessions is maddening to hear, even by some of us who share the obsession. It behooves all of us who talk about technology to get a little more perspective about the people who buy it, people who aren’t as obsessive about it for the same reasons we are. Let’s recommend the stuff we like, and be honest as to why. Let’s not assume that our reasons are the only valid ones, and stop impugning those who think different.


There’s been a couple really great rebuttals to my camera comments at the start. Álvaro Serrano talks about his passion for photography, and Casey Liss (yes, that one) chimed in as well. You’d do well to read both replies.

  1. My girlfriend recently needed to buy a new phone. She prefers Android, and I suggested the Nexus 5 to her, because her previous phones ran mostly stock Android. She went with a new Moto X because she needed one right away, and the Nexus would take too long to ship.  ↩

  2. Sorry to throw Casey Liss under the bus here, but the best cocktails I’ve ever had in my life were served over cloudy ice, and neither I, or the bartender, had a problem with it.  ↩