Technological Wonder Loss

We've reached a point where our wonder at modern technology fades almost instantaneously and is replaced by annoyance that our technology isn't better

Not very long ago at all, many of the things we can now do technologically was beyond the ken of science fiction writers. Twenty years ago, almost no one had what we then called “car phones” and they weren’t very reliable; now, most of us carry devices around that make the technology depicted in futuristic shows like “Star Trek” seem quaint by comparison and even incredibly poor people carry technology that just didn’t exist five years ago.

But, just as the Feiler Faster Thesis has obliterated the news cycle as we used to understand it–and Mickey Kaus was talking about that before blogs really took off and years before Twitter became a thing–we’ve reached a point where our wonder at modern technology fades almost instantaneously and is replaced by annoyance that our technology isn’t better.

For example, my late wife was in the process of copying all of the digital music files on our external hard drive–itself a miraculous thing by the standards of 1995–to Amazon’s cloud before her untimely passing last November. I finally got around to finishing the task a few weeks ago and now routinely stream my playlists through my car’s stereo system on the way to and from work when I get bored with satellite radio. The concept of beaming music stored on computers somewhere off of satellites to a tiny handheld communications device and then instantaneously through the speakers of a fast-moving vehicle would have seemed almost ridiculous five years ago. It’s just an amazing thing. Yet, I’ve reached the point where I’m annoyed when there are glitches–themselves almost invariably a function of NIMBY-related weaknesses in cell tower infrastructure rather than a failure of the technology itself.

Similarly, the recent storms somehow took out one of my four DirecTV DVR-receivers. (Probably a power surge that somehow defeated the surge protector; regardless, it wouldn’t turn back on.) Now, the fact that I had four devices that not only access hundreds of channels of high-definition television but record them on demand and network them so that I can view them from any room in my house would have been a fantasy less than a decade ago.

At this point, though, I’m annoyed that I’ve not only lost all of the shows on the box that I hadn’t gotten around to watching but that I have to reprogram the box so that it’ll record new shows. Which means, among other things, that I have to remember all of the shows that I was recording on that box and add them to the queue. In the grand scheme of things, that’s no big deal. And DirecTV got me a replacement box in less than 3 days, free of charge. But I’m at the point where I’m flabbergasted that my downloaded shows and recording settings aren’t backed up on the cloud. The notion that they live on a single hard drive seems to me incredibly antiquated.

FILED UNDER: General
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College and a nonresident senior fellow at the Scowcroft Center for Strategy and Security at the Atlantic Council. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm vet. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Ben Wolf says:

    Technology often doesn’t improve our lives, but only increases irritation, anxiety and stress. Sometimes it’s best to turn it all off and go surfing.

  2. Modulo Myself says:

    Not very long ago at all, many of the things we can now do technologically was beyond the ken of science fiction writers.

    This isn’t really true. Off the top of my head, Neuromancer is incredibly prescient about everything. And Infinite Jest misses the scaling down of technology and is unfortunately too sarcastic with the Year of the Depend Adult Undergarment, but it totally predicts the 24/7 instant and isolating aspect of commercial technology.

  3. Just 'nutha ig'rant cracker says:

    “Now, the fact that I had four devices that not only access hundreds of channels of high-definition television but record them on demand and network them so that I can view them from any room in my house would have been a fantasy less than a decade ago.”

    That phenomenon is STILL a fantasy for the bulk of Americans, I would guess. You have no idea of how not middle class you are, do you?

  4. EMRVentures says:

    All the old technology still works — your phone gives a dial tone when you pick it up, CDs play unless you scratch them, DVDs the same. Cable brings hundreds of channels, like it has for decades.

    You want to go cloud, you want to time-shift your viewing, you want to skip commercials, it’s your responsibility to know where your data is and how safe it is. Stop whining when you get burned.

  5. Ron Beasley says:

    I worked for a company that made cell phones. Initially they were a box that went in the trunk of the car with a handset up front. The first hand held phones looked like satellite phones today.
    I keep my cell phone off most of the time and turn it on occasionally to check for messages. I don’t text – why would I want to do that, I have little to say to people face to face. I have a cell phone but think of it as an invasion of my privacy. OK, I’m a 66 year old hippy – perhaps that explains it.

  6. Trumwill says:

    How is there this whole post and almost a half-dozen comments without a link to Louis CK’s delicious rant on the subject?

  7. James Joyner says:

    @Modulo Myself: There have indeed been sci-fi writers who had some prescient ideas and many who predicted the near future well. I’m mostly thinking of the people who wrote various popular movies and television shows–Star Trek, Star Wars, Buck Rogers, the original Battlestar Gallactica, and so forth.

    @Just ‘nutha ig’rant cracker: My wife and I combined for a very solid upper middle class income. Alone, I’m probably in the upper part of the fourth quintile for the DC area. Renting four DVR boxes from DirecTV is possible for anyone in the middle class; it’s a matter of how one allocates limited dollars.

    @EMRVentures: And I’ve still got my CDs and quite a few DVDs; I’m not sure what that has to do with anything. The point of the post is that expectations about technology come to exceed the capabilities very quickly, even when the technology is spectacular.

    @Trumwill: Ha. Yes, I’ve seen that before. I was thinking you were referencing “White People Problems.”

  8. superdestroyer says:

    One question that seems to never get discussed is how much (or maybe what percentage of take home income) do Americans spend to keep connected. Cell Phone, data packages, satellite or cable, etc.

    years ago people paid the phone company and maybe purchase a television antenna. How they spend much more. What have Americans given up to stay connect and watch television when they want.

  9. OzarkHillbilly says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    Technology often doesn’t improve our lives, but only increases irritation, anxiety and stress. Sometimes it’s best to turn it all off and go surfing.

    Agreed. 6 months ago I just stopped checking my e-mail because it was just too much of a pain in the ass. Yahoo had reformatted and I couldn’t figure out half of what I wanted to do. After 2-3 mos. I realized I don’t miss it at all and won’t change to another. Screw it.

    I am also thinking of changing my cell phone message to, “Why bother? If I didn’t answer the phone, it is because I don’t want to talk to you.”

  10. I think most of us here are aging out of the early-adopter cohort. We can’t blame that on “them.” 😉

  11. MarkedMan says:

    I think Mr. Personna has it down. The technologies James is describing have moved away from the early adapter stage. Early adapters are willing to put up with all kinds of setup, configuration, restarts, what have you. Once it gets to the typical consumer that kind of nonsense needs to be done with. Think about the automobile. Early on, the people that drove them were not only amateur mechanics, but they were often amateur machinists and blacksmiths too. Once the car became popular, it needed to work for people who wanted to do something with it, and who weren’t really that interested in it as a thing itself.

  12. Dave Schuler says:

    I don’t know, James. I think there a big difference between “no telephone” and “telephone”. Should we have the same degree of awe when a cordless phone appears as they did when the telephone appeared? I don’t think so.

    The cellphone was a staple of the comic pages starting in 1946 (it got upgraded to video starting in 1964). Should we be surprised that there’s no awe over it?

    Similarly, the difference between no television channels and one television channel is huge. The difference between a dozen channels and 200 isn’t nearly as dramatic in anything but frustration (as anyone who’s ever channel-surfed looking for something worthwhile to watch could tell you).

    Quite to the contrary, I think we’ve picked the low-hanging fruit technology-wise. More and more what we’re seeing are elaborations on existing technology rather than new technological revolutions. That we’re reacting as though they’re elaborations is, well, because they’re elaborations.

  13. al-Ameda says:

    @Ben Wolf:

    Technology often doesn’t improve our lives, but only increases irritation, anxiety and stress. Sometimes it’s best to turn it all off and go surfing.

    I agree.

    I think more people are realizing this now and are beginning to make interesting choices with respect to all this technology and social media. I have two daughters (college grads, in their 20s) who, although they seem to do everything on their smart phones, have both decided to opt out of Facebook, they both feel that it diminishes their sense of privacy and creates an artificial social stress.

  14. mannning says:

    Yes, just as no radio became radio, AM became FM, no planes became planes, prop became jet, and so on, giving most of us learning challenges in rapid fire succession. I still haven’t explored all of the buttons on my new car, only the vital ones. When the temp got over 108 here, it quicklly became vital that I discovered the buttons controlling the happily working heated seats.

    I think I shall go pull out Future Shock and read it again.

    @Dave Schuler: