Mobile Technology Reaches Middle Age
I shocked myself today with a nasty revelation. In just a few weeks, I will, officially, be closer to 50 than 40 years old. Middle age is no longer a distant possibility I can avoid or deny, and the mirror tells a horrid truth whenever I’m foolish enough to listen. I’m now entrenched in a community no longer interested in dreams as a distinct possibility, and the spirit of exploration has become faint; dampened with the ever-present drizzle of tepid reality. Even new discoveries are tinted, if ever so slightly, with the shades of gray familiarity. Call it wisdom, call it fate, or call it desire fatigue: it’s a state that’s reached when one no longer finds acute joy in the anticipation of new experiences or items.
I’m in great company. As most of you know, everything dies. But before the cold hand of death grasps your neck and pulls you unceremoniously into that dark and featureless pool of never more, you must pass through the center of life. For an average tree, this might happen somewhere around 100–150 years. Most ants purchase an expensive sports car and inappropriately chase larvae when they turn two or three weeks. Humans typically begin to second-guess every decision they’ve ever made between the ages of 40 and 45. If you’re mobile technology, it’s happening to you right now. And if you are mobile technology, desire fatigue is not only emanating from you, but it’s also directed at you. In this been-there-done-that kinda world, smartphones and tablets are failing to excite people in marvelous and unexpected ways.
It’s a phenomenon working on multiple levels. In one sense, my own mid-life crisis is forcing me to see the world through blasé-colored glasses, so to a certain extent, some of this gadget crap simply isn’t exciting anymore. And it’s not that I’ve become some kind of intolerable curmudgeon, unimpressed by mundanity and miracle alike. Quite the opposite. In fact, I’m increasingly fascinated with the most simple aspects of the world around me. A soft, ominous progression of orange-tinged clouds against the gradient blues of a late-afternoon sky fills me with only more questions as I get older. A reason for a planet brimming with a never-ending array of complex patterns and supposed coincidences that pile into a steaming, chemical goo enabling a bizarre parade of useless creatures continues to evade me. I endlessly ponder one wonder after another, yet I’m more invested than ever in solving the riddle. I’ve become a fan of cheap thriller novels. I mean, you know, I’m not a dick. I like stuff.
But honestly, it’s becoming progressively more difficult to feign astonishment about an increased bevel on a touchscreen that cracks just as easily as ever, or a slightly higher resolution video call that I never wanted to have in the first place. I won’t notice if a web page loads two-tenths of a second faster than it did before; I’m not lying awake at night wiping away tears of painful expectation over a new camera processor’s ability to saturate colors. You can argue that the smartphone is a landmark invention, but it’s all about apathy borne of entrenchment. Mobile technology is like air conditioning on the subway: I’m certainly happy it’s there, but you’d have to be a simpleton to still find it amazing.
The big tech monarchs carry considerable responsibility for my recent lack of interest, in that they aren’t trying to impress me the way they used to. I can’t blame them. How much more garbage do we expect them to be shove into a device? At a certain point, the Swiss Army knife became a target of ridicule: too many uses to be truly useful, interesting only to children and cavemen. This is the danger facing smartphones if designers take things much further. Already, the handhelds they’ve conjured act as a phone, a messaging center, an mp3 player/music streamer, a camera, a calendar, a social portal, a web browser, a GPS-based navigational tool, an alarm clock and timer, an activity tracker, a handheld gaming console, an electronic wallet, a video player, an e-reader, task manager, video editor, voice memo recorder, and a date-killer.
In all fairness, beyond levitating to my fridge and bringing me back a beer (which would be AWESOME), I’m not sure what else we expect our gadgets to do. This, I feel, is at the root of mobile technology’s ennui, and the way in which it becomes similar to my own: everything that should be done has been done, and any new functionality our future smartphones attempt won’t really feel new. It would only be an improvement on what they already accomplish. And frankly, some of the advancements we see coming down the pike are things they should have achieved years ago. Optical zoom lens, flexible OLED display, waterproofing—sure, it’s all pretty cool, but it’s not inspiring nor does it make me excited for the future.
As a matter of fact, a part of me is actively avoiding even thinking about it, because my own middle age whispers to me that none of this will fill the yawning void inside. As I get older, the dings and chips in the drywall of my mind proliferate, and somewhere along the line, technology attempted to replace salty snacks as my go-to spackle for the psyche. But now, my middle age is acting as my stout gatekeeper, refusing to let it. There is a benefit to getting older: I have learned to spot a rationalization from a mile away. Not having the latest technology isn’t keeping me from my goals or from communicating with a higher level of efficiency, and to say so is merely an excuse to spend yet another $600+ on an ineffective form of self-medication. Purchasing a new phone isn’t going to fix my life, and it’s a little insulting that anyone would think that my problems are so simple. They’re not. They are ginormous problems soaring majestically and capturing the clouds, wrangling them deftly so that they dump oceans of rain down upon my shoulders…and no phone is going to change it.
Additionally, I’ve become annoyed with the whole new phone announcement cycle. The ridiculous dog-and-pony show invented by Steve Jobs that every Apple competitor now apes, where even the most simplistic features are touted as invention-of-the-wheel-level, how-did-we-ever-live-without milestones in man’s technological history. These absurd events are presumptuous, goofy, and so unnecessary, and they are where desire fatigue first reared it’s ugly head.
An exhausting example: Waiting with baited breath to acquire an iPhone 6+. From the moment I misguidedly sought out the online rumors months before the official announcement, an unhealthy obsession with the near-future enslaved my mind. I pined for it daily, addicted to the information leaks like a common tabloid junkie. And even as Apple announced the release of this predestined tectonic shift to my lifestyle, I remained separated from the object of my desire, chained to my filthy tech-lust by a carrier contract still several months from upgrade status. I learned to loath my disgusting, tiny iPhone 5. It was a repugnant fungus, reeking and stinking in my back pocket, rotting like a dead tooth that I desperately needed to yank free from my body and discard. The small screen was a mocking phallus, ineffectual and unsatisfying.
And even beyond, after my contract allowed for a new subsidized device and I gulped for just a moment the blessed air of the free, still I was denied. To my horror, the iPhone 6+ was wildly popular among immigrants who buy fifty at a time and ship them overseas to sell at an insane markup. It was also highly coveted by the kind of lunatic who has nothing better to do than to wait for hours or even days at a time in line on a grimy sidewalk, befriending other lunatics and later possibly mating with these lunatics and creating even more lunatics. This being the case, the phone was impossible to find in stores. If you ordered online, it would take weeks to arrive. I was beside myself, constantly distracted. I could think of nothing else but the iPhone of which I was deprived while everyone else chirped incessantly about the ease with which they now skated through life with their big freaking phone. Oh, how I cursed those thoughtless heathens! Brazenly partaking of their hedonistic gadget-fest while I sat drained and bereft of lifeblood in a world that had moved on without me.
Eventually of course, I procured an iPhone 6+. It was and is a great phone and I enjoy using it. Beyond that, nothing in my life has changed, except for one thing: I will forever begrudge Apple for the hell I went through, wanting a product so badly that it stepped in between me and my life. It left me battle-scarred, weary and traumatized, hardened with the knowledge that desire can never be fulfilled. Truly the anticipation of a new product is a greater adrenaline rush than ownership, and far more stressful. It left me with a double-helping of desire fatigue.
Which I suppose you can call wisdom, if you’d like.
It begs the question: can the tech giants bring me back? Or have they too succumbed to their own desire fatigue, lacking the will to make me care again?
My suspicion is that they have become cynical in mobile’s middle age, and that they feel they no longer need to worry whether or not their products capture the imagination. They have become an inevitability in our lives, so it all comes down to a marketing slug-fest—over-promise and under-deliver. Instead of my phone floating to my kitchen and bringing me a MIlwaukee’s Best, the headphone jack is removed and I’m told it’s a marvel of engineering. From the perch of their midlife, innovation looks far too expensive and best left to start-ups and wealthy eccentrics. It’s a big accusation, I know—so what fuels this impression? Can you think of an item recently unveiled to the public that was heralded as the last word in its category, yet made memorable only because of its lack of impact? The Apple Watch, of course.
This is how I see it: Apple must sense the iPhone’s middle age. It’s definitely plateaued. The last hurrah was to follow a trend: make it reasonably huge and add Near Field Communication for the purposes of Apple Pay (I’d mention 3D Touch and those inane moving pictures, but when was the last time you heard them come up in conversation?). And now, even when I read the rumors regarding the tenth anniversary iPhone—due to come out in 2017—it’s really just a list of tweaks to continue the never-ending task of matching the competition in terms of display, camera, and speed. Because, as was mentioned before, what else can they really do (please please please levitate beers)?
If you’re Apple, you’ve really only got one choice: go back to the drawing board and come up with the next big tech product. No problem, right? They’ve killed it in the past with passionate and inspired releases of the iMac, iPod, and of course the iPhone—the iPad took everyone by surprise: no one thought they wanted it until they had it, and then they loved it.
Seeing as each of these inventions were actually just Apple’s version of pre-existing products—compact computers, mp3 players, and smartphones—the Apple Watch seemed a no-brainer. A smartwatch. Yes, of course. Other companies were already producing them, but true to tech manufacturing form, they suffered from major problems that kept the general public at arm’s-length. They were butt-ugly; they did things people didn’t really care about; they were simply not well thought-out. Not to mention a splintered product field: GPS-based run trackers, watches that burped notifications and email alerts, ridiculous camera watches, step trackers with sleep monitoring thrown in as a bonus. In order to take full advantage, you’d have to line your arm from wrist to elbow with led crystal screens and tiny rubberized buttons.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because you’ve seen it before. Remember how sick and tired everyone had become carrying a cell phone, and mp3 player, and a camera at the same time? Remember how your pants used to look like the cheeks of adorable, comical chipmunks? Remember how Apple so elegantly solved the issue with the iPhone?
In stark contrast, the release of the Apple Watch only contributed to the problem. It’s slow. It lacks a clever interface to deal with small screen real estate. At this point, the things it does are better handled by simply using a smartphone and your regular, dumb old watch. Beyond this, Apple stumbled in a way it rarely does: it added additional problems to the mix. It’s too dependent on smartphone tethering. Siri still stinks. Almost everyone hates the spinning digital crown (an obvious attempt to homage it’s own iPod click wheel). And finally, to make a bad situation worse, Apple failed to do what other smartwatches had already accomplished! The Apple Watch has horrible battery life, it has no GPS capabilities and therefore makes a horrendous running companion, AND it isn’t even waterproof! A fitness watch you can’t wear to the beach!
It’s disappointing, because for me, if there’s a device that could pull me out of my desire fatigue and cause me to covet mobile technology again, it’s a great smartwatch. But don’t expect Apple to fix these problems anytime soon. A simple search on Google will tell you that the next iteration of Apple Watch will fix exactly none of these problems. I could be wrong. They might have rediscovered the art of keeping a secret, and plan on blowing us all away come September, and I hope they do. Because if they can grunt their way past impending death and push out one more great product, they might just flush my desire fatigue away. And I’ll tell you another thing: if they want to fix it now, and fix it for good, they should hire me. I can solve every problem the Apple Watch has with two words: SMART BANDS. But that’s a whole other article.
I can hear someone out there cursing me and vehemently pointing out the fact that the first iteration of a product by Apple (or anyone else for that matter) is always flawed. There’s a learning curve to producing a new device and they’re really only meant for early adopters. “Don’t forget,” they’re saying, “the first really usable iPhone was the 3GS, the third in the product line. If you want a better watch, just shut up and wait for it, you good-for-nothing hater!”
I’m calling BS on that argument. How many times has Apple gone through this process to still miss the mark by such an insane margin? The Apple Watch doesn’t simply need fine-tuning, it needs to be a different wearable entirely. It needs re-inventing. They simply got it wrong. And I’m not talking about aesthetics. That’s easy. There’s a million ways to make it pretty, and beauty is relative. Rather, they need to go back to the drawing board and figure out what people need. Isn’t that what Apple is all about? Isn’t that what they’ve been spouting for years? My god, they take it even further and say “people don’t know what they want until you show it to them.” Such a claim! When the iPhone and iPod were going through painful growing pains, didn’t anyone at Apple have a pencil? Wasn’t anyone taking notes? Or were they keeping track of their experiences on a Newton? And do not mistake me, I do think they should take risks. But the Apple Watch was not a risk. It was a half-hearted attempt to create a product that they felt they had to make. They checked the box.
It probably sounds like I’m being too hard on Apple, and perhaps I am. But this “mobile middle age” is something they need to take a hard look at if they want to keep the money flowing briskly from my wallet. If I were Apple’s primary HCP, I’d be lecturing the HELL out of it right now, because its cholesterol is through the roof. And obviously, they’re not the only guys who can’t fit into their college pants anymore. Microsoft is throwing in the towel: it’s sold off its feature phone division to Foxconn, and has announced it’s cutting back on the smartphone biz, and laying off almost two thousand jobs. Sony might be getting out of the game all together. And I think it’s safe to say that we’ve all disowned Blackberry.
Desire fatigue. It’s so hard to combat, and maybe deep down inside we don’t even want to. Isn’t desire exhausting? The constant demand on your heart and mind to satisfy an intangible notion of satiation in one’s life. If it’s an illusion, why chase it? Like a mirage, can it not just lead you farther away from the safe and comfortable things in life and deeper into the desert? Yes. It can.
And that, I think, is the point. Desire drives us to take chances, and some of those chances are foolish—even harmful—so we learn, correct, and try again. And through this process we grow. It’s trite, yes, but nevertheless true. For my own middle age, I’ve discovered that constantly craving new tech isn’t going to get me anywhere but the poor house. Using tech is fantastic. Obsessing over it is a waste of my life. Instead, I am funneling my desires elsewhere, and it’s paying off by creating even more desire to achieve and remain relevant, no matter how disgustingly old I become. I’ve become an early-morning runner, and I have this idiotic desire to improve my distance and run rain or shine. I’ve got nearly half my life ahead of me and I plan on moving through it on my own two feet. And my current mobile tech helps me by allowing me to track every run and share it with a group of like-minded individuals, which keeps me motivated and competitive, and gets me out of bed even when I would really like to stay there. I’m doing what I can to discover minutes in my life to practice the guitar and become a better player, even though so many find this such a tedious and meaningless affair for a person my age. But music does nutty things to my soul and I want to see how nutty things can get before I die. And my mobile tech helps me by keeping the guitar in tune, helping me record my ideas, and being an amp for those times when I’d rather not get off the couch. I want to become a better writer, because I have useful thoughts that I want to live long after I’ve gone, and I have the desire for them to be communicated as clearly and concisely as possible, with a touch of flair and humor that’s unique to me. And holy crap, I’m sitting on my couch at 6:30 in the morning editing this document on my phone while I wait for my kids to wake up.
So this is how mobile tech plays a part in the real desires of life. Perhaps its middle age is all about helping me stay substantive in my middle age; my tiny shield protecting me from the world and its petty need for prudence. A teensy, little mouse of a secretary, keeping me organized and bringing info and tools when I need them, giving me a leg up on my stiffest competition: time.
It’s an honorable legacy, if not always an affordable one.
Now someone please get me a beer.