Essays on Technology and Culture

Pushing Back Against our Technology Skepticism

“I’ve come up with a set of rules that describe our reactions to technologies:
1. Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
2. Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
3. Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.”

— Douglas Adams

There’s a difference, as I noted a few years ago, between skeptics and naysayers. It’s okay to be skeptical of something new and unproven. History is littered with the corpses of the next big thing in technology that never made it: Pneumatic trains, steam-powered cars, Multimedia CD-ROMs, WebTV, Google Glass… Then, there’s the corpses of the first attempts, where the idea was sound, but the execution was not: LaserDIscs, the Apple Newton, and various attempts at Virtual Reality.

That last one is one I’m still skeptical about. I can see practical use cases for it in niche and professional areas, much like I can for augmented reality, like Microsoft’s HoloLens, or even Google Glass. In the consumer space, though, I can’t see VR catching beyond video games. What advantage does would perfectly smooth, nausea-free, lag-free VR have for the applications most people do outside of entertainment? [1] Nobody has been able to give me a compelling answer for this, so I retain my skepticism that VR will ever catch on in the home outside of hardcore gamers.

Does my stance on VR tip me over towards the naysayer side? I don’t know. Recently in a few podcasts, Merlin Mann brought up a Twitter account called Pessimist’s Archive, which collects negative and pessimistic reactions to tech from across history. The posts comparing hoverboards to bicycles are spot on, as is the related Medium post. [2] What game changing, ground breaking technology am I being pessimistic about that I don’t even realize yet? And how can I push back. I was pessimistic on smart watches for ages until I decided to put my money where my wrist is with a $99 Pebble. Now I wear an Apple Watch almost 24/7—and love it.

The biggest obstacle to technological skepticism is the cost of trying something new—and I’m talking money. Let’s go back to Virtual Reality again. The Oculus Rift, which is the state of the art in consumer VR hardware, is $600, plus the cost of a compatable PC—which starts at $950 according to the Oculus website. The Samsung Gear VR is $99, but requires a Samsung Galaxy S6, S7, or Note 5 smartphone. You can get the S6 for $150 with contract, so $250 for a full-featured VR package. I’ve tried the Gear VR, and was moderately impressed with how lag-free the experience was, especially compared to playing Duke Nukem 3D in VR back in the mid–90s. Sadly, the Gear VR is not optimized for wearing over glasses, and certainly not for people with amblyopia, like me. Finally, there’s Google Cardboard, I suppose, which you can use with any smartphone that runs the app. I haven’t tried this, mostly because I’m terrible with a pair of scissors.

Even if you can have a VR experience for the price of a pair of scissors and some old cardboard boxes, is that going to be enough to convince people that this is a technology they need in their lives? Let’s move up the cost stack to smart phones. Smartphones at least hit a point in the technological adoption curve where quality and price allow almost everyone to afford a decent one—even subsistence farmers in Myanmar. They also have a killer app that’s attractive to almost anyone: the Internet (or at least Facebook) in your pocket. And you can get one for free, with a contract. Smartphone prices have gotten to the point where I’m giving serious thought to buying a Moto E, just so I can experiment with Android for a while and not be tied to a year-long contract with my phone company.

Money may not be a factor for exploring some new technologies, but time is. When you use your technology to get things done, switching things up for the sake of just trying something else is a hard sell. I’m approaching the age where in Douglas Adams’s rule number three will apply, and I’m already starting to feel all I want is something to bloody work, damn it, without any of you fancy young people smart, Internet of Things crap. (See also: my continued negative stance towards streaming music.) Asking people to upend what works for something new and unproven is a big ask. Some of us want to approach the future at our own speed, even if that speed is as close to zero as makes no odds.

But we should still try to push back against our skepticism whenever possible. Whether it’s by research, or by experience, it’s the skeptic’s job to at least entertain the possibility of something being awesome, or at least useful. Part of why I keep my feet in the wading pool that is technology writing is because I am interested in what cool, powerful tools are coming my way. I’m interested in how I can do better work, learn new things, and make the world better. Supposedly, Archimedes said “Give me a lever long enough and a fulcrum on which to place it, and I shall move the world.” I don’t think he’d scoff at the new-fangled, Internet-Connected Smart Levers the kids are using these days, but what do I know?

  1. Also, will they be able to get VR working properly for people with vision issues? There’s a lot of those out there…  ↩
  2. Speaking as a city dweller, if you want to ride a hoverboard, fine, just don’t do it on the damn sidewalk. Go into the bike lane like a gentleman. It’s a sidewalk, not a sideride. Same for anyone over the age of thirteen on a bike, while I’m at it.  ↩