The all-knowing sage Douglas Adams had this to say about technology:
- Anything that is in the world when you’re born is normal and ordinary and is just a natural part of the way the world works.
- Anything that’s invented between when you’re fifteen and thirty-five is new and exciting and revolutionary and you can probably get a career in it.
- Anything invented after you’re thirty-five is against the natural order of things.
I grew up with a BBC micro. My earliest memories are of playing games and fiddling with BASIC.
I wasted my teens online. I could bind Trumpet Winsock with the best of them.
I did a degree in computer science.
I spent my twenties and thirties working on GPRS, UMTS, LTE, and all the other acronyms associated with mobile phones.
I dedicated the last half-decade to dispensing technology advice to the state.
I fricking live technology. My house is full of gadgets, I've written code that's run all over the world, and I'm currently studying for an MSc in technology.
But modern technology is rubbish!
I've been studying Blockchain and - while the maths behind it is nifty - it's clearly a solution in search of a problem. It's so far away from being consumer-ready - and has no obvious path to mass adoption. And that's before we get to all the scams surrounding it.
Augmented Reality still hasn't actually dropped into the hands of consumers. Even eight years ago when I reviewed Google Glass, it wasn't clear what it would be used for. Nothing in the subsequent decade has shown any practical use. I had a play with hololens and - while interesting - the effect was pretty unconvincing. Augmented Reality games have been on phones for close to twenty years. There's been the odd breakout hit like Pokemon Go - but it has hardly changed the world.
VR is actually here - although I remember the first wave in the 1990s. But it still hasn't got around the fact that you have to wear a cumbersome headset and try to focus a couple of cm from your eyes. And the videos coming out of Zuck's "Metaverse" look like N64 games - without the fun.
Self-Driving Cars seem to be as hyped as the Internet fridge. They can't even work out how to turn their lights on at night! I'm pretty well served by public transport - and there's no shortage of taxis. So I can't quite work out what a self-driving car is for. The world-sensing tech is cool - but it clearly isn't anywhere close to being good enough for real-world use.
Voice Assistants. I'd say Alexa understands me about 75% of the time. That's nowhere close to good enough. And it's impossible to use unless you remember the exact syntax for every interaction. Yes, I love being able to turn on my lights by reciting a spell - but for anything more complicated they're just a flop.
5G. This was the moment I got out of the mobile industry. All the promises made about 5G were ludicrous. It's faster Internet. It isn't going to love you or save your dog. It just makes things a bit faster with slightly lower latency. Just like 4G did. You're still going to have coverage issues because your provider doesn't care about your unprofitable area.
It isn't all doom and gloom though!
MRNA vaccines are amazing. I've got them in my bloodstream right now. I can't wait for someone to use them to inoculate against HIV or to cure my lactose intolerance.
Fake meat is interesting. I'm particularly fascinated by Synthetarianism. Sure, it's possible to live on a traditional vegan diet - but I can't wait to see what innovative new foods we can eat.
Contactless / NFC. I was an absolute NFC sceptic - and still am when it comes to "tap to interact" stuff. But for payments it has been incredible. Wave my phone near a vending machine and a can of cola pops out. Even if I'm in a different country, it works. It's devilishly complicated behind the scenes - but so much effort has gone in to making it effortless for customers to use.
IoT is putting tiny sensors everywhere. Home monitoring is nice - but industrial monitoring is changing the world.
It has never been cheaper to manufacture bespoke circuit boards. You can custom build screens small enough to fit in a Lego block.
Open Source has comprehensively won. Anyone can examine the code that runs their life. And, anyone can pick up world-class code and use it to power their new inventions.
Cutting Through The Hype
Perhaps what I'm bored of is hype. I lived through the next-big-thing being 3D TV. I was sold on the idea that every home would own an Additive Printer. EInk is lovely, but hasn't broken out of the small-form-factor. No one is using social TV. Hydrogen powers precisely zero domestic vehicles.
I guess I have a low tolerance for over-hyped gimmicks which are forever doomed to change the world next year.
20 thoughts on “Have I reached the Douglas Adams Inflection point (or is modern tech just a bit rubbish)?”
Dan Thornton 🇺🇦 says:
Great post - I feel almost exactly the same. All the hyped tech I see is overblown, but then I stumble across something amazing in a random niche industry I've never thought about before
Andy Hunt says:
Maybe most things in the software space are good enough now, and almost everything new is a small improvement, or only useful in an incredibly niche area?
Merton Hale says:
With respect to self-driving cars: I agree with Terence, just what are they for? To turn the description around a little, instead of "self-driving cars", how about "cars you don't have to drive yourself." What would we have to do to make this happen? Oh, that describes a taxi/Uber. We already have them!
Further, the equipemnt that needs to be added to a car so that it can drive itself is not cheap. Cars has a limited life, after that this expensive equipment is essentially thrown away. With a taxi/Uber, the "technology"(the human driver) just gets into a new car. No lost/wasted resources.
I'm an old fart, 76! Educated as an electrical engineer. There is no way I'm going to let a car drive me.
What I COULD see is a service where I "call" for a car, IT drives itself to where I am, I get in and drive myself, and when I'm done, I get out and the car returns to the depot, or waits somewhere for its next mission.
I'd love to see a cost study comparing the cost to make a car self-drivable versus what you need to pay an Uber driver (paid a proper living wage, but could be minimum wage, lots of people work for minimum wage.) They say that individual car ownership will be significatly reduced, people share cars. Great. If shared car is self-driving, how long would it be before it needed to be replaced, with possibly/probably all that fancy self-driving equipment written off.
Alexa and I get along quite well, but I don't ask her to do much.
David L says:
My sentiment likens automated driving as similar to the authors description of IoT. Consumer privilege/plaything, industrial seismic change that changes everything in unpredictable ways.
Have I reached the Douglas Adams Inflection point?
Simon Farnsworth says:
I think it's fairly easy to explain, too.
The march of the technology industry since at least 1920, if not earlier, is that capabilities that were expensive become cheap; if you look at what you can't afford today, chances are good that something with equivalent capabilities will be affordable in 10 years, and cheap in another 10.
At the same time, we've entered a stage where the capabilities you can get for £100,000 just aren't impressive any more as compared to what you get for £1,000; in 1980, the difference between £100,000 of technology and £1,000 was obvious and significant. Nowadays, £100,000 just buys you more of what you can already do with £1,000 of technology - no new capabilities.
Put the two together, and we enter an inflection point; we've come out of a period where there's loads of great stuff if only I could afford it, and into a period where we need imaginative innovation (here's a thing you can do that nobody thought of before), not just efficiency gains (here's a thing that would have needed an entire System 360 per person in 1960, only now it's affordable to the ordinary consumer), to get exciting technology.
Simon Farnsworth says:
And as an aside, if I look at your list of hype in the final section, I see several things that have either been round before, or where other technology overtook them.
3D cinema is something that comes round about once a generation - the 1920s incarnation failed, the 1950s incarnation failed, the 1980s incarnation failed, and the 2010s incarnation failed. It gets hyped the same ways each time, but nobody seems to learn from the past failure.
Additive printing lost out to cheap shipping - why would I own an additive printer that takes 48 hours to do something useful, when I can pay an online retailer similar money to the running cost of such a device to get a better version shipped to me in 24 hours?
EInk is an exception - I've seen big EInk displays, but they have no market niche because they're monochrome, slow to update (so not good enough for motion), and too expensive to replace posters and the like due to the expected vandalism rate. The technology's there, the use case isn't.
Social TV has happened, but not via dedicated apps - people post online about TV they're watching, and they share spoilers in messaging apps with each other, but it's just not something that's big enough to support dedicated apps when the social media giants support this use case.
And hydrogen got beaten out by the lithium battery revolution - lithium battery vehicles are cheaper to build and run than hydrogen, and fill the same niche of low pollution transport powered from renewable energy (hydrogen being generated from electricity was the plan). We also, as a consequence of this shift, have e-assist bicycles and tricycles, which was impractical with hydrogren.
I feel the same, modern technology feels boring and doesn't excite me in the way it used to only a decade ago.
I'm not sure if this is due to changing perception due to age as Douglas Adams suggested or if its because technology has become more a black box inside a walled garden as a solution looking for a problem with successive developments making smaller and smaller leaps often with the benefits tilted towards faceless corporate giants that market their baby steps as ground breaking.
As such I still get excited by projects such as James's Lego bricks, Charlie Harrington's developing on an Apple Macintosh SE/30 Computer, the yearly DOScember retro computing hackathon, working on vintage 8 and 16 bit systems, etc.
Sebastian Schmitt says:
The whole article hits very close to home!
A complete side comment here, about near field (NFC). I love it, but not in the form that's been hyped. Using my cell phone for this purpose is at least as much trouble as using a traditional credit card. But my credit card itself supports NFC, and using it in that mode is mega-convenient.
I think the Douglas Adams inflection point is a thing. Sure, I can think of a couple of counter-examples, but overall I do notice that my general attitude towards most technologies roughly matches what DA described.
re: something to cure your lactose intolerance, have you considered transfecting deer lactase genes into the surface tissue cells of your gastrointestinal tract? It worked for this guy, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aoczYXJeMY4 "Am I still lactose tolerant? - Lactose Gene Therapy Update"
As to the main thrust of the article, modern computer tech is rubbish. It all started with the emergence of smartphones with limited energy and networking becoming the dominant computer type. But modern technology is amazing. As for the 5G thing, well, that's an exception. Only 15-20% increases in throughput hertz for hertz were possible form 4G to 5G. Nothing like the 300% increase from 3G to 4G. The low hanging fruit has been picked and all that is left is optimization and using new, not so good, spectrum.
Stuart Hedges says:
Excellent blog. I live near a 5G area and can barely tell the difference between 4G and 5G - presumably because it's waiting for the service at the other end to catch up!
Voice activation is pointless except in cars, using sat nav without taking your eyes off the road is good.
ཀ།༨ཇ ་།་འ།སབཇའ says:
Agree on the hype. But I had a chat with a guy working on a new hospital building 4 or 5 years ago and he was raving about his AR tablet that let him overlay the building model with what had actually been built to catch pipe routing problems before they became unfixable. Magic!
Rachel C says:
One place i would love self-driving cars is on motorways. but it only works if they all are and they are networked. Big leap to get there. but a networked fast road system, where it keeps everything the same speed, no speed up/slow down, would be great
David Mead mentioned this.
Self driving cars just arent ready yet. But imagine no drunk drivers, no lorry drivers crashing because of fatigue etc. I see it more like the automation of “tellers” at banks - yes, a person can do it, but automating it makes it cheaper and therefore more accessible. There aren’t that many tube stations in rural Cornwall or Bangladesh.
Hydrogen isn’t useful for domestic cars where we have reliable power distribution infrastructure and the car sits idle for 15 hours every night. But if you run a fleet of (self driving?) industrial vehicles in the Australian outback, or lorries travelling long distances to provide food and medicine to remote communities hydrogen is a way to provide quickly refillable fuel with a high enough energy density to make it viable - and it can be generated locally. Hydrogen can also be used to replace natural gas for the type of highly temperature sensitive industrial processes that product pharmaceuticals.
AR is already being used by industry to assist surgeons through complex surgery from the other side of the world, support remote safety inspections of vessels while they’re still at sea, coach engineers in remote locations through fixing broken systems without needing to fly in expert, and simulate emergency response training for hazardous situations.
These things are making a difference. Just not in your living room.
October 2022: A Personal Update + Some Good Reads mentioned this.
Ron Toms says:
Great write-up. As a boomer, I recognize a lot of your arguments have echoes from the past. History is a great teacher. Going to the moon was considered pointless when there are so many problems on Earth that could benefit from that money and effort. But the spin-off tech has revolutionized our modern world from drones to medicine to food preservation to clothing and more and more and more.
When Michael Faraday gave demonstrations showing the connection between magnetism and electricity, it was waved off as "parlor tricks" that didn't have any practical value. Today, Faraday's work on electromagnetism is the foundation for 95% of our entire world's economy.
George Bool. His math was laughed at by his contemporaries. It languished unused until it became key to modern computer programming.
But for every Faraday, Einstein, Newton, etc. there were thousands of people who's research and efforts just didn't go anywhere. Like taking random paths through an unexplored jungle, no one knows which path will lead to the prizes and wonders of the world. We have to explore all of them and be willing to accept (and fund) the failures.
Block chain, self driving, augmented reality, artificial intelligence... probably none of those will end up how we thought they would. But they will contribute to the whole. Radio was originally intended to be a person-to-person communication device, while telephone was originally intended to pipe musical performances to remote concert halls. How we choose to use a thing is not determined by it inventor.