Sunday 13 September 2015

Has Technology Reached Peak Usefulness

Film Canister
A couple of events this month have really had me asking myself if we are at peak technology usefulness.  Now before you start accusing me of being one step away from off grid living (which I do respect people for pursuing but for which I'm probably a little lazy), hair shirt weaving and/or tin foil hat wearing let me first clarify that I do think technology is incredibly useful and has certainly helped me get ahead.  I'm just questioning if all the newer stuff provides any real benefit to the user.

Firstly, let me give a couple of examples of the good stuff.  I've certainly benefited from the ability to achieve rapid price discovery.  For one I don’t believe I’d be sitting on an investment portfolio, all tied up in wrappers, with total expenses of 0.27%, with all the benefits that brings, without the ability to trawl the offerings from many providers in a matter of minutes.  Would I even know them all let alone know the cost to start with?  The ability to talk to and see someone across the globe in real time for ‘free’ has also helped me hugely.  The thing is that these possibilities are nothing new; the technology to provide them has been around for many years now and importantly is relatively unchanged.  My rapid learning on how to be a successful investor has certainly been helped by fantastic sites like Monevator but here I would have also been more than ok with excellent books like Smarter Investing which requires no technology.  I would have also been well educated on finance and investing with excellent books like When Money Dies: The Nightmare of the Weimar Hyperinflation and The Millionaire Next Door instead of the great internet.

Let me now jump forward to more recent times and see if new technology is helping me.  This week our friends at Apple released some new products.  Now I’m not an Apple fan boy/girl so if I have it wrong then please do correct me in the Comments below but all that I see is things that are bigger/smaller, slightly faster with more mega pixels.  An iPad Air 2 with decent storage and Wi-Fi ‘only’ costs £559.  Who knows what an iPad Pro is going to set one back but I’d bet it will be more expensive.  Is this new bit of tech about to obsolete my Nexus 7 Tablet which today can be had for £141.11?  In my case it certainly isn't as what I have today does everything (and more) than I currently need.  What about a new ‘tasty’ iWatch which from what I can see tells the time unless you have it tethered to an expensive iPhone?  Then as if by magic it does things that your phone can do...  I think I’ll stick with my mechanical watch which I guarantee will still be running long after the latest iWatches are consigned to the scrap heap.  I’d actually nearly bet that my watch will actually still be running and telling the time as well as any future iWatch technology long after I've popped my clogs.

How about the likes of smart phones and the rise of Facebook?  Has that really helped us move forward in life.  I was at a restaurant in the past week, and I kid you not, at least half of the punters were on their phones playing with Facebook or some other latest App.  They were probably telling their ‘friends’ how great a time they were having.  Now these were not lone travellers, they were couples and groups who were ignoring the company around them and instead choosing to stare into an inanimate screen.  I really struggled with it.  I actual wonder if in time it will actually lead to a loss in our ability to communicate with each other.  Give me a face to face conversation with family and friends any day (as long as they don’t carry on with stuff that bores me).

Internet search has been around for a long time now.  Is it better today?  I certainly don’t find it any better.  In fact I find it worse because I know that anything at the top of the search engine results has been paid for by a corporation via a pay per click offering.  I now need to filter through that to get to the good stuff.  It’s certainly not helping me because if I wanted what they were touting I’d be searching for it myself.

Another issue I see is the now crazy levels of data harvesting combined with Big Data analysis that seem to be going on.  I can hardly move, and I'm careful with what I give away, without being targeted.  I’d hate to see what those who aren't so careful are exposed to.  Let me give a trivial example.  I have never given my home or work address to a large faceless well known corporation but I do have a ‘free’ email account with them.  Specifically, I also haven’t told them how I commute to work but each day they ‘generously’ now tell me how long my journey to and from work will take.  Clearly knowing the time of day, the fact my tablet has a GPS onboard or my network location plus an active email account is sufficient for the algorithms to piece it all together.  If I was offered product/s that were guaranteed not to data harvest would I go for them?  In all honesty probably not because the targeted advertising/peer pressure that I then receive doesn't cause me to consume (I'm a Living Well Below My Means type of person) and I know my products (‘free’ or otherwise) are then being subsidised by the many who do.  It’s a bit of a sad situation where a clean product couldn't win my business because of the very thing I dislike.

Has the rise of electronic and internet banking improved lately.  5 years ago it wasn't bad but today after many enhancements I don’t seem to be able to move without having my account frozen for ‘fraud protection’ reasons.  This month I was again not allowed to transfer credit to my savings account.  Oh and if you’re an Executive from a large UK bank that was heavily involved in the Libor scandal the reason I move all my money from your current account rather than transferring it into some of your products at the very first opportunity (and on a regular basis so I don’t know why your algorithms are so surprised) is not because of fraud.  It’s because your products give derisory interest rates, have costs I don’t like and ongoing expenses which are just not competitive.  I know this because rapid price discovery means that today I can find a better offer in less than 30 seconds.

On second thoughts I think it’s time to head to the kitchen and grab that tinfoil...


  1. Ah, you are growing old, RIT ! Welcome.

    1. Thanks for the generous welcome Keith. Feels great to be aboard.

    2. We call it wisdom , and in some other cultures it is respected by the young.

    3. reached peak technology? obviously no
      world full of nobheads? patently yes

  2. Appreciate your points here, especially the restaurant story. One of my brothers is like that, we sat watching a movie with his family and I kid you not, every single one of them was on their phone/tablet/laptop throughout the film. I'm like WTF???

  3. I think you're absolutely right about the (lack of) usefulness of the iWatch and the way people are constantly hooked to their phone screens.

    But I think there's still a lot of technology usefulness to come, particularly in the area of robots - both hardware and software ones.

    The downsides may be significant disruption in the workplace, and even more social isolation / self-absorption.

  4. Have a look at the humans in the Wall-E movie for a good view of where we're going.

  5. RIT, you're getting older. Nothing wrong with that. Embrace it, and it will have a joy and peace of its own. Your values change as you change.

    We haven't reached peak tech usefulness, but it will be following generations who will discover value. As well as wasting time listening to crappy music/tech distractions/other odd practices. It's part of being human, it is why there is the cycle of life. It is also possible that reaching for FI and getting closer is making parts of you reflect upon your wider setting, seeking to spend more life energy on that which has meaning and value to you, and less on what doesn't. A fine example of the process of individuation under way!

    Mind you, when you groused about the shocking price of that Apple device I recall I paid £1000 for a Amstrad 2286 and enough to get it to do something useful in the late 1980s. It's hard to knock Apple's price, it is the fast upgrade cycle of the fanboi that is the problem, not the capital cost so much. As for the Iwatch, something you have to charge every day is a bit like the regular winding of that mechanical watch... Though your mechanical watch won't be made obsolete in a couple of iOS releases' time!

  6. Concentrated technological advancement occurs during a war out of necessity. Also, a lot of useful technology is advanced through scientific based research projects. To be useful technology, people usually need to be involved who are not market driven. The problem with market driven technology is that it is the advertisers that create the need, and exploit the greed, vanity, fear and stupidity of others. The well understood approach involves convincing your market that they need something and then selling it to them. It is all about making money out of teenagers (high insecurity so must have latest/coolest) and large organisations/governments (buyers not spending their own money so not taking adequate care or forced to buy the cheapest) and making things that look sexy but are so bad that they need replacing or updating within a short timescale.

    One of the big problems is that devices are now too 'connected' and it is too easy for their software to get updates. It means that manufacturers can minimise their time to market as they can be very slapdash about the crap they shove out the door. With minimal human resource, they can send out an update next week to fix the problems they knew about before it even got out the door. The problem is that the update will waste your time and make your machine worse in some other way (usually by slowing it down).

    Microsoft Windows is a good example. What most people do not realise is that it is not the software that has advanced to be quicker and more powerful; it is the hardware. The software has been progressively made to a poorer and poorer standard but because the hardware has advanced so much, it makes the new software look good. You are forced to buy a new version of the product because security weaknesses (bugs and badly written code) in previous versions will no longer be fixed by the manufacturer, and because others have bought it or been given it at discount and your data format is now no longer compatible with them so you upgrade e.g. docx. The updates actually slow your machine down, as does general use over time, largely due to sloppy software. The number of people who still think that a new version will make their existing computer run faster shows the staggering naivety. This has not been the case for any major release of Windows to date.

    Take one of the latest 'technologies' which is currently a buzzphrase: the internet of things (IoT, M2M). This is such a weak marketing gimmick that it is not even a technological advancement; it is a concept. It is a concept invented to sell things. It is simply about electronic things digitally communicating with each other (e.g. your fridge talking to your watch). But where is the new technology? It is largely a useless(!) use of existing communications technology. What we will have is the worst kind of technology; not only will the software be so badly written (because, by their connected nature, it can be updated frequently) but there will be so many security weaknesses that many of these products may be seriously detrimental to our existing lifestyles (and I am not even talking about the rise of the machines; I am talking about spending 20minutes in a phone queue being told your call is important trying to get help to get rid of the malware in your toaster).

    Isn't it the case that our lives are evolving to fit the gadgets we pay for? Should it not be the other way around? Is this due to an increasing lack of focus and a fading responsibility we have for our lives, society, civilisation and where we live?

    I am reminded by Douglas Adams' story of the civilisation that died out because of shoe marketing. All the shoe manufacturers made shoes worse and worse so that people had to keep buying more shoes. Eventually the economy collapsed, most of the people died out and the survivors evolved into birds.

    1. A top rant, sir, and a whistle-stop tour of a whole bunch of issues worth further investigation. Targeting insecure teenagers and people spending OPM is inspired! Thank you for a great riff off RIT's rant!

      Mind you, I so have a soft spot for the IoT - it lets me track the temperature of the composting operation on our farm from 2 miles away, although the tech basically uses RF RS232 and an SMS uplink before it turns into anything internetty. Running a TCP/IP stack on four AA batteries for weeks is tough. And people on-site can use their smartphones to track things. It's not all bad.

    2. Glad you liked it; thanks for your response. And if you liked that...

      You demonstrated my point re IoT. The stuff you mentioned is all old (I designed a similar system for a remote station using satellite about 10yrs ago) and the practical requirement that you had for communications has already been met; the tech has been around for decades (RS232, SMS, TCP/IP were just agreements between the most powerful manufacturers and groups agreeing on communication protocols to implement into their products - they were not technology breakthroughs, just a bunch of humans agreeing on something). By adding the internet bit at source, you have said the solution is less power efficient. If IoT were to mean greater efficiency and better standardisation of communication protocols then that would be an incremental bit of progress. But what I fear it largely means is just a greater proliferation of complex inefficient products made by the cheapest labour forces in far off countries sold at distance over the internet that we do not really have a requirement for but that will require greater maintenance (more of our time), and increased confusion for the average consumer, with an overall increase in the global electronic waste disposal problem. Which, I think, sums up nicely where we are in general with regard to consumer technology. It's just not sensible.

      My father in law had to put his car in for repair a few weeks ago. The sensor system that automatically adjusts the headlight beam angle (based on the weight load in the car) had failed so that they were permanently pointing too high and blinding all oncoming traffic. He could do nothing but take it for repair. It cost about £500 to fix. 10yrs ago the problem would not have occurred. Progress or exploitation?

    3. Spot on Jim!

      As a website engineer we are constantly pushed (by marketing, etc...) to just release new features without proper testing or time to lock down the code so it's as we want it. No time for code iterations etc... they just think that once something has been written it's "done". This results in far too many bugs and then the mandatory horrendous hacks over the top to fix them all and even worse looking and hard to maintain code.

      As we know we can release fixes practically whenever we want it's hard to push back, so as you say we are constantly just fighting fires and releasing fixes for bugs which should have never been released in the first place.

      I guess that's progress for ya! :)

    4. @Jim F

      Re: your father in law's car

      My father tends to frequent the PistonHeads crowd occasionally, and he came across someone on there that had to have a replacement headlamp "unit" (i.e. bulb, surround, LED bloody driver circuit, yada yada yada !) which ended up costing him well over £1000, yes, a thousand quid !

      I damned near required a new keyboard when I heard about that one. I used to have a mid 90s MR2 on which a headlamp once stopped working. If I remember correctly that merely needed a new bulb (about £9 I think) and about half an hour of my (unpaid) time :-)

      I'll stick with what I got I think ...

  7. A not-unrelated development?

    1. What a shame (sarcasm); manufacturers will have to spend a bit more money getting their software engineers to do their jobs better and write more efficient, more focused code to produce better products. Prices might increase but perhaps there then will be a little bit more attention given to what we are doing with our lives.

      If the same level of coding efficiency and cleverness used by many of the early home computer games coders in the early 1980s were used today on current hardware, then I cannot imagine how impressive the results would be. It is just that it takes a bit more effort.

  8. Great post RIT and I have had similar thoughts over the previous year or two.

    The way I see us going is that a larger percentage of new shiny things being produced are in fact useless and sooner or later even the mass consumers are surely going to wise up to this. I am hoping that then the focus will be brought back to quality and longevity over quanitity and churning products, but maybe I am just a hopeless optimist.

    Also while we are possibly nearing the peak usefulness in the developed world, there is surely a long way to go to bringing the rest of the world up to speed with useful technology. Hopefully they can learn from our mistakes and only actually implement the truly useful stuff and not all of the shiny bells and whistles that are really not very useful at all!


    1. +1 : This "consumer" noticed an awfully long time ago :-)

      I tend to focus on making what I acquired years ago (when most of it was better made) last as long as possible, be it a mobile phone, a toaster, whatever.

      I recently made the mistake of buying a new 3Kw kettle about a year ago and the damned plastic arms that secure the lid have already broken despite my careful nature with such things. I still have an old 2.2Kw METAL Russell Hobbs kettle which predates the sodding Falklands War for Christ's sake, and THAT's still on the original element and works absolutely fine.

      A neighbour of mine's the good old fashioned "retired from farming" type and still has a microwave that's now over 40 years old I think. He says pretty much the same thing: "why would I want to replace that ?" Good question.