The Gist: Through smartphones, we get some very sophisticated and powerful technology in the palm of our hands, often for free. But when was the last time you were actually impressed with any of this stuff?
As many of you know, I recently switched German-speaking cities. While I had been living in Vienna, Austria for over five years, in the past few weeks I have moved up north to Hamburg, Germany. If you don’t know your European geography too well, it’s a distance of not much less than 1000km. To put it in beer terms, I have swapped märzen for pilsner. While I am far too old to be moving so far north, it is hard not to get a bit excited about exploring a new city, particularly when I have experience living in a similar-sized German-speaking city already. So in my first weeks here, whenever I had free time, I grabbed a Hamburg StadtRad (CityBike) and just cycled around the streets, trying to get accustomed to the surroundings and the connections between districts. Often, I would be blissfully cycling around an area I’ve never been before, listening to music through my headphones, not having a clue where I was going. But then, every now and again, the music would stop momentarily, and was replaced by a woman telling me that up ahead I should turn left.
I had, of course, programmed my way home into Google Maps, pressed the big blue ‘directions’ button, placed my phone in my pocket, and trusted Google to do the rest. No map attached to my handlebars to give some context to what the woman was going to tell me, no checking street names and districts, just blind faith in the power of information technology. The first time I tried it, I have to say I didn’t trust it completely, and every few minutes would pull out my phone to see wherever this woman was taking me. After a while I realised she knew what she was doing, and started to trust her. Eventually, I forgot I was even using the service, and got caught up in whatever playlist I was listening to at the time, all the time looking around at the new neighbourhood I was passing through. Only when she briefly interrupted the playlist every few minutes would I remember that I was in fact delegating a lot of the work in this exploration endeavour to modern technology. It was so unobtrusive that I found it hard not to say ‘ok, thanks!’ whenever she gave me directions. It felt like I had someone watching me from above, and just giving me information I needed when I needed it, and nothing else. It felt like a videogame.
I’m writing this because I realised during that first journey with in-ear navigation that it was the first time I had been truly impressed with modern technology in a very long time. I found this interesting, because the bike I was riding wasn’t mine. It was a shared CityBike that I found and rented through an app on my phone. Also, the music I was listening to wasn’t actually on my phone, but streamed from the cloud using a service I can use to access it anywhere with an internet connection. I wasn’t too gobsmacked when I started using either of those services a few years ago, it was more of a : “but of course!” feeling when I first discovered both CityBikes and Google Play Music. It’s the same when any new hyped app is released: for example, Uber is useful, but it really doesn’t inspire much awe. That’s despite the fact that all of these apps and services I mention are only possible because of mass amounts of data aggregation, near-perfect flow models, continuously updated search-match models, and all of this happens before anything even reaches the ridiculously user-friendly interface that you use to interact with all of this information on your smartphone. All of this is amazing, and I would argue that all of these services improve the everyday life of anyone who uses them. The problem is that they improve the everyday life of everyone who uses them so incrementally, that we barely even notice it anymore.
There is unquestionably a sense of entitlement when it comes to new apps. When browsing the app store and I see an app that tells me when new episodes of my favourite TV shows are available to download, all I think is that someone should have thought of that years ago, and that it definitely is not worth €1.50 for the full version. Yet still I install the free version, and have my TV future mapped out months ahead without having to even think about googling when the next season of Peaky Blinders starts: It’s already in my Google calendar. This app made my life a little bit better, yet from the moment I discovered it, all I had to say was that it was an obvious innovation, and not worth the price of a Slovakian beer for the privilege of using it forever.
This sense of entitlement, I think, is borne out of just how subtly and how incrementally that information and communication technology has infiltrated our lives over the past decade. Most of us were first acclimatised to the power of information technology through a simple tool such as Facebook. Facebook is a social network, it doesn’t connect people with information, it connects people with other people, and specifically with people they know. It was originally a place where friends could connect and chat and share stupid stuff on the internet. No one was very impressed with the technological innovation of Facebook because it provided an intrinsically personal service: connections with friends. We focus more on our Facebook friends than we do on the actual service Facebook provides. Internet folk seem to get offended when they realise that Facebook actually exists. Everything Facebook (the organisation) does, be it renaming our walls or changing “being a fan of something” to “liking something”, we see as an intrusion into our online hangout world with our friends, rather than the platform itself aiming to improve (or possibly extract revenue). We don’t really see it as advanced technology, we see it as interesting stuff our friends might think we would like. Anything that reminds us otherwise, we react badly to.
Despite all this, through Facebook we became accustomed to things being connected with other things. We learned not to make our posts visible to friends of friends, since this could amount to tens of thousands of people. Through this, words like viral and exponential began to be understood by the general public, and the interconnections in our world, and the power of the internet to aggregate and connect almost anything, became mainstream knowledge, internalised by anyone who has used the internet in the past decade. We aren’t awe-inspired by new apps like Uber simply because all they do is connect people with other people, and we have been using services like this for years. And yet, when you take a step back and look at what it does, even Uber is amazing technology, something you wouldn’t believe if you saw it in a 90’s sci-fi movie. It’s something that could have been in The Fifth Element, yet to us it is just a taxi competitor.
My Google-guided bike rides in Hamburg have given me a renewed appreciation for the technology we all take for granted in our lives these days. I (and not many other people) have not had a good word to say about Facebook for many years. Yet it was this time of year ten years ago, early spring 2006, that I first joined Facebook, and I can honestly say that it has improved my life a lot more than I could ever really give it credit for. I have moved around a lot in the past ten years: Hamburg is my sixth country in the time period. I have met people in all the countries and places I have been, and the only reason I have been able to remain in contact with them is through Facebook. Friendships that could have just been chance one-off meetings have developed into lifelong friendships, simply due to connecting on Facebook. My best friends are scattered throughout the world, and our main method of communication is through Facebook, even if it’s just a like or a comment every now and again between meet-ups. These friendships would have withered and died in an age before Facebook, and for this I have to give Facebook some retroactive credit for being one of the greatest innovations of our time. Like my Google-guided bike rides, its power is its lack of intrusiveness, just letting you get on with whatever you need right now. It is a ridiculously powerful tool, and if used correctly, over many years, the incremental benefits add up.. Even though anyone could have thought of the idea…..