Why Are Tech Companies Weirdly Stuck In The ’80s?

It’s a very weird time to be covering technology right now. Microsoft just rolled out a computer it wants you to give a stern talking-to to change the channel. Google is trying to build buzz for what amounts to a screen socketed into your face, and just rolled out a browser extension that will also allow you to sternly tell your computer what to do. Everybody seems to be making a smartwatch. And Amazon just announced it’s developing flying robotic mailmen.

It’s all undeniably neat, but it’s also all stuff nobody actually wants. And it’s reflecting an increasing problem for technology companies; far too much of tech has a dream of the future mired squarely in the 1980s.

Flawed Assumptions

A good example of this is the Samsung Galaxy Gear and its accidentally sad attempt to seem culturally relevant. But if you stop and think about it, a lot of this stuff is based around a relentless campaign to deliver the “jetpacks” of ’80s science fiction: Computers you can talk to, screens in your eye to control things, and robots doing the grunt work. It’s a weird cross between the utopia of Star Trek and the crappy urban life of bad ’80s cyberpunk novels.

And there’s no demand for this technology, as so much of it is built on assumptions that hold true for fewer and fewer of us. Take Amazon’s new flying package drones; these things are more or less impossible for the company to use unless you live somewhere with a flat surface for it to land on. If you live in pretty much any city, you don’t get the flying robot mailman, sorry.

The same is true of the Xbox One: This is a game console that assumes that you are always connected to the Internet, that you are always in a quiet space, and that you have an enormous living room and a big TV to go with it. This isn’t even getting into the assumption that you want a central computer controlling everything in your living room that you have to yell at or gesture at to change the channel. That’s not most of the world. Hell, that’s not most of the United States.

Worse, most of this stuff doesn’t actually “just work” the way it’s supposed to. The simple fact of the matter is that Siri and Google Now just aren’t robust enough to be more than a novelty; while they are undeniably profoundly impressive, especially if you know the history of voice recognition software, they’re still not ready for prime time.

A Rudderless Industry

The simple fact of the matter is that the tech industry, right now, isn’t certain what comes next. There are undeniably trends; tablets are crushing desktops, wireless Internet tools are becoming increasingly popular, industries are shifting to digital models.

But the tech industry is built on innovation; while “disruption” is an annoying buzzword, it’s not an inaccurate one. When Apple introduced the iPhone and the iPad, it had a seismic effect on the tech industry… but things have more or less evened out, and nobody knows what’s next.

Hence, looking to the past, or just throwing money at stuff that’s kinda neat. And, especially, throwing money at concepts they remember from childhood.

An Increasing Problem

This is something the tech industry should be worried about, not least because they’re going to lose a hell of a lot of money making stuff nobody wants. But more than that, it can trap the tech industry in a mindset that puts it out of touch with the future that’s actually happening.

For example, probably one of the biggest concerns, in the coming decade, is going to be efficiency. People will want to use the technology they own to squeeze more out of each dollar they spend and to spend less of their time on rote tasks. This is pretty much the entire appeal of apps that don’t make fart noises for most people, when you think about it, but it’s got larger implications as well. Just ask Nest, which is shipping 40,000 smart thermostats a month. Granted, this is about as unsexy as technology gets, but it’s an enormous, untapped market that’s largely been relegated to Kickstarters and CES.

True, there’s always going to be flashy new technology. If nothing else, quantum computing will come eventually and change the world. But until then, it’d be nice to see technology built to do something other than turn us into entitled Glassholes.