This piece originally appeared in Arc Digital.
The tech revolution has claimed many scalps. Film cameras, video stores, landlines, and adult magazines — these are just a few of the technologies that have been thrown into obsolescence by the digitalization of everything.
Less noticeably, technological progress has also slowed for a product that would seem to thrive in our current age, but has found itself in a gradual decline: the personal computer.
It’s not our usage of PCs that has declined. They remain essential to our functioning, and despite the advent of tablets and smartphones, PCs have resolutely hung on as our work device of choice. What has declined, however is their sales. Since 2010 — the peak year for computer sales — rates have gradually eased. They are occasionally boosted by increased adoptions in emerging economies, but on the whole, rates have settled into an apparent permanent stagnation.
At first glance, this seems surprising, given that computers are 1) more central to our lives than ever, and 2) surely increasing their penetration as computer illiterate generations die off and “digital natives” come of age. However, those cannot offset the withering of the most important driver of the industry: upgrades.
People are holding on to their computers for longer. It’s not a coincidence that this is happening now. In (roughly) 2010 a crucial barrier was passed—for the first time ever, the available hardware adequately matched the tasks that were asked of it. Computers booted up with minimal fuss. They opened and saved documents instantly, and crashed increasingly rarely. Internet-based programs went from tolerably slow to satisfyingly quick. And the tag team of USB drives and good Wifi seemingly put an end to the search for better port technology.
In short, computers had become good enough.
While manufacturers continue to make them supposedly better, not enough people care as their current model remains functional. The market, finally, has been satisfied.
It is this concept of good enough that I want to explore in this piece; the idea that in many product sectors the primary limiting factor for innovation and continued progress is not, as many people think, technical limitation. It is instead the fact that eventually technologies reach a point where they’re fine, prompting the market to relax and continue rolling in that groove indefinitely without major innovations.
The reason this is important is because it is so rarely considered by tech evangelists, entrepreneurs, and others who predict the state of future technology. They tend to assume that whatever is both possible and better is inevitable. This belief partly motivated the assumption behind the now-collapsed Moore’s Law, and still shapes our expectation of what the world will look like five, 10, 20 years from now.
To the market, however, possible and better count for very little if the status quo is basically good enough. As such, many grand visions rarely come to fruition. People aren’t sufficiently motivated to support them. We just don’t need things to be better.
To illustrate this idea, think of window blinds technology. Windows blinds have, on the whole, remained unchanged for the last 60 years. The prevailing “tech” is that string-pulling mechanism where you drag it one way to release, and the other way to lock. It’s not as if nobody has ever tried to make a betteror more advanced window blind. They have, and you can buy them. You may have even stayed in a hotel where the blinds raise electronically to wake you up at a pre-determined time — pretty nifty. However, these innovative blinds have never really caught on with the general population. For most people, the string blinds are just fine, and we can reasonably expect that in 100 years time people will still be fiddling with them even though this is in fact a labor they could easily eradicate.
Similar technological slackening can — if you look carefully — be observed everywhere; even in the most cutting-edge of technologies.
Smartphones are an obvious contemporary example. Although built-in obsolescence as well as physical wear and tear keep the upgrade cycle reasonably steady, it would be fair to say that there has been little meaningful change in the technology since the 2010 “satisfaction point” for computing. I, for one, very happily use an iPhone SE, a phone with the same chassis as the 2012 iPhone 5 — a phone which itself could do everything we ask from our devices today (other than run the latest software updates).
Can we conclude therefore that the smartphone is good enough, and that there is nowhere particularly desirable to take it to from here? Quite possibly — particularly if we consider that many attempts to innovate smartphones have actually resulted in backward steps in terms of functionality and convenience.
Take the development of unlocking systems. First we used a code — which certainly hit the good enough threshold. Then we had fingerprint unlock, which represented a marginal improvement on good enough. People happily went along with this because (crucially) it required no change in their buying behavior, since they were going to upgrade anyway. And now, in a desperate attempt to keep this stagnant category moving, we have face unlock — a system that is less convenient than fingerprint unlock because you have to move the phone to a certain position in order to use it.
The same peril might well await more radical proposals to improve smartphone technology. At the moment, there is a great deal of excitement around “voice,” leading to speculation that instead of a phone we could simply have an earpiece/contact lens/chip-in-the-brain to which we could talk so that we might more smoothly perform our smartphone tasks. But would such an innovation be better than the status quo? Surely we want don’t want to verbalize our every personal message or embarrassing search throughout the day. The only silent way to perform such tasks is typing — which needs a keyboard and therefore a smartphone.
Even if we speculate about “brain-scanning” sci-fi alternatives, it’s not clear they would really be much more useful than good old written text. Massive visual changes that offer little functional progress are rarely successful (thank you, Google Glass, for illustrating that one). Even in fantastical speculation, it’s pretty hard to improve meaningfully upon what we’ve got. Not only should we expect people in the future to be fiddling with window blinds, but smartphones too.
Of course, examples such as these are fairly trivial so far as innovation goes, and do not dominate contemporary discourse on the subject. We are more moved by dramatic innovations such as self-driving cars or the ever-nebulous AI and its associated automation. Unfortunately for the big dreamers, however, the effect of good enough is even more pronounced in technologies where the status quo is fine, and to reach that future ideal, the public would have to pass through a series of intermediary (and possibly less-than-desirable) beta-version stepping stones.
If I were to offer you 20 minute trans-Atlantic travel, you’d probably take it. Who wouldn’t? But that’s not the real question. You can’t just click your fingers to get such an outcome; you have to edge your way there incrementally, and each incremental step has to be market-friendly. The real question therefore becomes whether you want the Concorde. Say yes to that, and we’ll then move on to the next question. But apparently we decided that six-hour crossings were a fair deal, and that the juice of four hours just wasn’t worth the squeeze. Thus the Concorde failed, and with it the foreseeable possibility of an eventual 20-minute crossing. This is the dilemma that faces every paradigm-shifting vision: It’s not enough for people to want the dream, they have to want the crap proto-versions of it too.
So while it would clearly be possible to have self-driving cars everywhere, and perhaps even preferable to what we have now (though that is debatable if you work as a driver), the fact remains that it’s a long road to get to that point. Whether those intermediary compromises would survive their collisions with the real world is very much open to question. If the status quo were unbearable perhaps we’d be willing to experiment, but the status quo is fine. Better than fine, in fact — people love driving. Wrestling people out of such a habit would have to be done with zero cooperation; like the fingerprint unlock, implanted silently into their normal behavior, rather than being actively chosen.
The same applies to the grand threats of automation hanging over our heads. Many people are under the impression that soon their job will either be done by machine, or will become obsolete. While unquestionably this will be true in some cases, the rule of good enough suggests that it will be nowhere near as prevalent as forecasts suggest.
Quite simply, in most cases where automation is possible, it would be too much upheaval to make the marginal gains worthwhile. Automation would have to overcome social and political opposition, demand a change in consumer behavior, require years of iffy beta-testing, and for what? An improvement on something that in most cases isn’t really in need of improvement in the first place (so far as the market is concerned).
The moral of this story is a simple one. Just because a given technology is possible and better doesn’t make it inevitable. The status quo must be inadequate, or, at the very least, it should not require any upheaval of behavior. These thresholds are rarely met by the majority of futurist speculations capturing our imagination. This should worry us because we are assuming a level of future growth that is by no means certain.
The futurists are unable to see an invisible wall standing before us, defined by human limitations. The future — technologically speaking — will probably be much more familiar than we imagine.