Tik Tok Tech
Or how I learnt to stop worrying and started loving ChatGPT
Technology is the future. The future is technology. I was born, raised with this vision, this mantra. It has been a fact for most of our lives, regardless of generation. Not anymore. After despondently flicking through articles, ads, conference and seminars themes, the brave new tech world we are heading for seems empty. The Next Big Things are just tired news within 48 hours.
Horror vacui. AKA ChatGPT today. The only thing we could drum up seems to be a new chatbot. Of course, not any old chatbot, the best ever. Until the next one that is. This one can write, blog, and pass exams. Basically, *shudder*, it can replace you, me, journalists, lawyers, doctors, … It is SkyNet. It is the Singularity.
Excitement reborn. Just like the last couple of times.
It could be cultural fatigue, or hype fatigue. Existential boredom. Creeping age,… yes, all this is very possible. But it is also totally irrelevant. It seems as if techs are slowly spiraling down into blandness. Fate, strategy or tactical choice? Hype has always been part and parcel of the game, but it replaces now entirely roadmaps and vision. If we can’t expect anymore leaps and bounds, then we should at least feel momentum. Instead, performance just about incrementally improves, while the technology experience does not.
Yesterday, everything was bigger, faster, more. Today, it should be better, cleaner, more efficient. Whatever the actual performance, technological roadmaps kept the vision alive. Even when the perspective was years, if not decades. Without this perspective, we just have a series of novelty items. Tech hypes just follow one another. Fleeting attention grabs. Interest gone in seconds. Flashes in the pan.
Tik Tok Techs.
Message and material reality seem to go their own disjointed way today. Self-serving hype cycles suck the energy right out of any strategic vision, making them at best declamatory wishlists. Techs got to the pinnacle of financial and economical pre-eminence because of their sustained momentum. They can recapture it.
For this, they need bold roadmaps, not just some incremental technology improvements and caretaker visions. Solutions should be taken out of drawers. Some will prove illusionary, some wrong. Some will fail. But some will succeed. And lift economies and societies into new realities.
What do we need for that?
Where are the Prophets, the seers?
Are we there yet?
Hype is certainly a necessary part of the technology industry. It always relied on it. Like for any creed, they are ups and downs, and tech hype cycles kept up the flame burning. This means prophetic, visionary tech gurus, as well as evangelists and devoted disciples. You need hype to create texture, color, sound and substance for the narratives. At least, that makes techs credible for budgets or impulse buys, private or corporate. This means addressing institutions, businesses and individuals.
WEF is that?
Techs always were part of the main global events. Maybe, global events were techs. How else to build a vision for tomorrow without talking about the tools available? Try globalisation without IT and telcos. Today’s infrastructure was once the tech future described, pitched, moulded by institutional evangelists. Where would broadband be without the information superhighways of the 90s… No such lofty plans and visions today.
Certainly, whether you are the European Council, the UN or the WEF, you need to know tomorrow’s tech landscape to “shape tomorrow’s agenda”. And so you welcome the who’s who of techs on your panels. And thus a future agenda is spawned. We have their 5 years’ WEF agenda. Less an inspiring or inspired vision than a declamation. Indulge the “thank-you for the invite”, and here are the top 5 techs for a new future.
The declamation of intents and ideas gives the lion’s share to financial services for the un-banked. A topic ever popular as it gives you gigantic addressable population and panders to their hopes. As a solution, recent events gave a brutal reality check to self-regulated, decentralised financial systems. And Robin Hood showed like year the limits of crowd-finances.
The WEF invocation to future techs goes on to “more inclusive and affordable [data industry]”, conveniently overlooking that these are private businesses, “if governments allow it”. Or that “people will eat more nourishing food”.
All of this hardly sounds like a roadmap, more a list of wishful topics and tech hypes. Including the funding of said start-ups. It reads more like Live-Aid 1985 than ComDex 1985. Visions looping in onto themselves. Definitely not a reset.
Tech me to the Moon!
If institutions did not set roadmaps, they were pushed by industry visionaries, or at least industry insiders. There always was an industry of industry insiders. Without them, techs would simply not be where they are. To simplify the search, ZDNet summarises for us the best of techs for the year to come. Neatly and conveniently. Lets just say that hopefully 2023 is more exciting than portraied.
WiFi and Broadband, Metaverse, AI and Sustainability and Security to close … Pretty much like last year’s. And probably next year ChatGPT numero uno, of course. Or maybe the topic burns itself out faster.
Tale the last 2 or three tech hype cycles. The Metaverse. Bent out of shape by repeating 3 times “there is no definition of the metaverse” for the sake of writing the mandatory article. BeetleJuice to show up next. Still, like oxygen, like semi-conductors, the metaverse just is. Take cryptos, NFTs and assorted digital decentralised values. Invoking “Web 3”. Yet, the systemic failure of blockchain on its main promises of security, and the glacial collapse of the crypto/startup industry mean that the basic foundation of the system, trust, has been lost for years.
And so, as the praying wheels of ChatGPT have replaced Web3, industry gurus still walk up to the pulpit to entice us to “slice through the storm of disruptive technologies” and “anticipate the big Tech flips”. Or, as my ChatGPT tech writer assistant tells me to tell you: get the market buy-in to flip the paradigm, and pivot into a new reality.
Cycle me this
Roadmaps need institutional relays, industry offer, support, and finally end-user buy-in. Without true new usage models, solutions or even functionalities, we can just burn through a lot of tech hype cycles. It has always been part of the industry, but the momentum just slows down. Hypes tended to create at least year-long narratives, they now seem to exist just to create attention without any graspable substance. The tech reality was built from visionary dreams of the 70s up to a saturated equipment rate today through them, but because there always was some direct usage value. Do we still have that?
The same, but better. But still the same
Give us something new to do.
What is the immediate usage value of what we are pitched as new? It is not as if we ever needed anything conceptually sophisticated. We often just made it our own. Take tablets: the industry thought it was the ideal tool for warehousing or checking your mails on the go (pre-smartphones). So, that is what the tech hype pushed at launch. Yet, tablets got an extended, if not primary, usage as entertainment screens at both ends of our lives: toddlers and OAPs. We always could appropriate techs. It’s been a long time it seems.
Techs should be about new experiences, however tenuous
The last big tech push for new usages was 2 years back. A new digital playground. What we actually got was, and still is, rather dreary. Wireframe landscapes, no better than Second Life in 2003, avatars no better than the Mii avatars from 2006, and hardware we can politely describe as awkward. A virtual reality with no legs to stand on. Literally.
A discrepancy between reality and vision never is a problem as long as you know the destination. We use mobile phones, despite a dismal initial connection coverage. Calling from your car with a brick phone was more a statement than an actual tool. Roaming is only a global reality since not much more than 10 years. yet, we soldiered on because we knew what was to come. Eventually. Even throw-away novelty had their day. Digital picture frames were a seasonal success, gone next Christmas. But there sure was some tech hype, but also a minimum of new experience.
If there is no real new experience, then the hype cycle just eats into the momentum. Micro-incremental performances are not new experiences. Not new opportunities.
The future is bright, the future is … what?
So, without potential new experience, there should be at least some new horizon. Promise or threat, techs were the future. There are new potential opportunities, new usages, new worlds we could be pointed towards. Today. But we have lost this basic expectation. We hype techs higher and higher on message, yet deliver less and less on new experience. Metaverse, “web3”, and today ChatGPT.
I listed these basics a couple of years back, in “Unareality”, a name stamped before “metaverse” became the currency wording: Credibility, Clarity, Intensity, Unicity, Continuity. Each is in itself still an opportunity.
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Credibility has taken a blow. It is probably at its lowest in years. FTX, 3 Arrows, Luna Coins,… SVB. Dust. Probably, high-concept, celebrity-endorsed crayoned apes, pixelated punks and digital real estate were a punt too far. Either it takes 10 years or an entire generation, or well-established and respected industry names re-surface as guarantors of digital reality. Who knows.
Vision requires clarity. Everyone understood “DVD better than CD or VCD”, without needing to understand the backstage fisticuffs. So the question is not which standard for what, but the reassurance that “a” standard will emerge. We hear half-hearted statements about quantum, but an awful lot about chatbots.
This and the fact that user engagement is fragmented across proprietary apps and devices means that there is no intensity. Digital reality just feels like a series of parallel worlds. The cross-over hype has lost its momentum.
As for a unique and continuous presence, the 4 dashboards I am given only for graphic cards, printing, input devices and screens are proof enough that it is not in the works.
Where we had a momentum based on a clockwork supply of innovations, a series of consecutive and interlinked narratives, we have now what sounds like big clouds of VaporWare. Fate? Just strip back the moulded plastic of your notebook, your car or you server farm, and at the core of it, you essentially have the same electronics binary system as 80 years ago, even the same fundamental power supply system as a century ago.
Don’t we have any new tech today to create awe, wonder, or make us dream??
Is there really nothing we could be hearing about today?
The societal next Big Thing we are sold are electric cars. The future of our transportation is giant mobile phone batteries with limited rare metal deposits and little end-of-life value. And we just don’t know how to decommission even windmills. Planned obsolescence seems at the heart of our tech solutions. It is not like there are no potential alternative we could explore: synthetic fuels, biofuels, nuclear regenerators, plasma, hydrogen, geothermal, … and that’s just energy.
To me, the tech industry always had an informal motto: “if it ain’t broke, we need to fix it”. Today the expectations should be higher than what the tech hypes propose, if we want to regain momentum.
This is the 21st century: users need usage value
First things first: governments, corporations, companies, customers, families and consumers breathe techs. So, if customer-centric, client-centric, any-centric mean anything, this is where to start to catch and retain attention.
Second, attention is at a premium: anything that does not address an immediate need or impulse is redundant. No one will invest any significant amount of time for a value “in the future”. Just look at the current demise of traditional university teaching. 4 or 6 hours per day of Zoom “amphitheatre teaching” in 2020/2022 saw to that. You are invited in individual timelines. You should not try and capture undivided attention unless as a basic statement of authority. That’s not buy-in.
Reduce and optimise your customer-facing time. Facilitate it, don’t take it over. Think product warranty. Why do we still have a 30 minute long online interview to fill-in manually exact product references and serial numbers, date and location of purchase?
So, “spray and pray” is not only expensive, but wasteful. Do not even confuse logics and reality. Even Google got its target profiling wrong. Stadia was to be the next-gen cloud gaming solution. The only thing that will survive the experiment may be the gamepads, as they were a hit in functionality. And yet, did anyone ever ask for new controllers to add to the pile under the TV?
The heart of the project was to entice “gamers”, if there is such a thing? Just take 3 game types you are familiar with, regardless of generation, interest. Looking to pass time on the way home? Pokemon Go, Farmville maybe? You want something familiar, low engagement. You will not pick up a new game every week or month. Or you want the latest and best title you heard of. Then the next one. You want novelty, for a few days. you won’t look back. Or you enjoy the competition with other players. An antique engine is just fine, like PUGB, Dota2, League of Legend prove.
A thousand-strong gaming library sounds like a catch-all concept, but it hits nothing really. To deliver value today, to spread share a narrative and shape a vision, you need to know precisely what you want to do with what, with whom.
If you have nothing to say, better shut up
Spray and pray hits no target, and pure hype falls into no ear.
The 21st century may or may not be spiritual. One thing for sure, it will be sceptical. If not cynical. This does not seem obvious to some. Dual-screen notebooks, LCD screens on fridges, xxK TVs and cars that change color. Worth flying to Las Vegas for the CES? Once front-page news, it just feels done and gone many years ago. Either it did not work at the time, or it is just an unnecessary repeat. Tech hype cycles that will just burn more goodwill.
The customer, the end-user will have just moved on before you finish the sentence. Better to maximise the fleeting attention you have been given than to just hog the airwaves with repeat performances.
Where to then?
Can techs do better than chatbots?
Where does this leave us? We have Chatbots. We had them for a while. Ever since the HitchHiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (1978, already), we know that an AI can solve the meaning of life. Spoiler alert: it is 42.
ChatGPT still can’t beat that, but this means that we still have some years to go until the story is squeezed out of all juice. Since the wheel, maybe the spade, it seems to me that technology was all about mechanically enhancing the human performance. So indeed, electronics are specifically designed to replace us. Shock horror. Underwhelming. Call it mithridatisation if you must.
So, techs should be all about vision. That means a roadmap. A new tech horizon. Today? Maybe.
Techs are shaken by a wave of layoffs. But if you look at the actual amount of innovations, in apps or hardware, over the past decade, there is an argument that it could just be shedding excess fat, pruning the weeds strangling them. Or it could be a descent into cost control hell as a backup strategy.
Beyond the artificial tech hype cycles, it could be the occasion to restart a new tech cycle. Instead of terminals, input devices or monitors, given the climate and energy emergencies, it could target at untethering techs from the mains or batteries. It could be new fuels, new energy delivery, or new human terminals.
The next technological leaps need shared agendas. Lets start with very narrow, very basic scopes.
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