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This Week in the Future: Jerks, Tools and Tech

Steve Martin in The Jerk

Steve Martin in The Jerk

What do you think of the iPhone? What do you think of Windows 8? What do you think of the iPad mini? What do you think it means that DirectX 11.1 will be Windows 8 exclusive? What do you think of the Samsung Galaxy S3? How do you think an Ultrabook compares to a Macbook Air? Who will win? What does is mean for the future?

As you can imagine, I get questions like these all the time. From journalists to guests at cocktail parties, people are really interested in the newest device or the latest release and how it might give us a window into our technological future. They are usually very excited. I am not.

Don’t get me wrong; I love all new devices as much as everyone else. I just can’t seem to muster the breathless anticipation that this next device or release will somehow change everything. When I hear the hype and see the commercials, I think of Steve Martin yelling, “The new phone book is here! The new phone book is here!”

In 1979, Steve Martin co-wrote and starred in The Jerk, a nutty comedy directed by the great Carl Reiner. If you haven’t seen the movie or haven’t watched it lately, go and have a look. It’s a treat. Part time capsule and part laugh-out-loud comedy, it’s of a very different time but still holds up… mostly.

The scene I can’t get out of my head is when Martin’s character, Navin R. Johnson, sees that the newest edition of the phone book has arrived. He rushes to the delivery man yelling, “The new phone book is here! The new phone book is here!” He then flips to the J’s and finds his name. He’s excited because his name is now in print and big things are coming his way. It’s never a good idea to dissect a joke too much, but the crux of the absurd humor in the scene rests on the audience’s question: “Why would anyone be so excited about the newest edition of the phone book?” Indeed.

When I think about the future and what this seemingly endless parade of new smartphones, computers, tablets and software can tell us about the future is that we will reach a point when the excitement about their release will seem as silly as getting overjoyed about the phone book. “The new iPhone is here! The new iPhone is here!”

I posed this question to a roomful of futurists yesterday. Yes, it just so happened I was on a Skype call with the renowned futurist and trend spotter Faith Popcorn and her team over at the BrainReserve. I talked about The Jerk and waved my hands around yelling, “The new phonebook is here!” They smiled and replied, “It only seems like human nature. People need something tangible. People want something they can hold on to. Each new release gives them that. It’s only human.”

Faith and her team are right. People need a tangible thing. It’s as though this new product will tell them a secret about the future. By holding it in their hands, it will someone give them a glimpse of what’s to come. Simon Trewin, an agent from the William Morris Endeavor Agency in London, captured this very point when he described walking into the Apple Store in London: “It’s like you’re walking into the future,” he explained. “The way the Apple Store looks, the way it’s designed, the way it smells, the temperature… everything is done in such a way that you feel like you’ve just walked off the high street and into the future. And how that you are here if you buy something Apple gives you the promise that you can take a little piece of the future home with you.”

That’s a lovely image, but I also think that we, the buying public, are getting worn out by the hype. We know there’s going to be a new phone from Apple and Samsung and all the rest of the manufacturers. We know that each holiday season there’s going to be a new fleet of computers and tablets and gadgets to enthrall us. It’s like a weird natural cycle; winter, spring, summer, back-to-school, fall, holiday releases.

Never missing a trend, these companies are starting to make fun of each other and themselves. The Mac vs. PC TV ads highlighted this in their ongoing sly-grinned battle between Apple products and Windows-based computers. Even more pointed are the new Samsung ads that poke fun of the people waiting in line for the next release of the iPhone. They’re funny because they’re true, yet we still buy into the battle between tangible things. This thing is better than that thing. This new gadget is so much better than that old gadget you have. It’s why so many people like sports and courtroom dramas: they’re battles between two similar but opposing sides, and one person always has to win. It’s clear and easy to understand.

I think there’s something terribly wrong with this. All of this makes me think about hammers.

Technology is just a tool. Gadgets, devices, software, wed sites, apps… they’re all just tools. Technology is just a hammer. As humans, we love to admire our tools. Go to any home improvement store to catch a glimpse of this. But a tool is just a tool; a hammer is just a hammer. What’s really important is what you can do with the tool. What really makes a hammer interesting is that you can build a house with it. When we admire a tool for the tool’s sake, we miss the potential of what that tool can do for us. We miss how it can affect the lives of people. We miss the real reason why that tool is important in the first place.

What can the endless parade of gadgets, upgrades and releases teach us about the future? We may begin to feel a little absurd ourselves when we realize that we are spending a lot of time admiring hammers.

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DISCLAIMERI am Intel’s futurist. I am currently on sabbatical from Intel.  My thoughts, observations and analyses are mine personally and I am not speaking on behalf of Intel.

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More Stories By Shelly Palmer

Shelly Palmer is the host of NBC Universal’s Live Digital with Shelly Palmer, a weekly half-hour television show about living and working in a digital world. He is Fox 5′s (WNYW-TV New York) Tech Expert and the host of United Stations Radio Network’s, MediaBytes, a daily syndicated radio report that features insightful commentary and a unique insiders take on the biggest stories in technology, media, and entertainment.