critique

David Pogue’s insights about tech over time

From David Pogue’s “The Lessons of 10 Years of Talking Tech” (The New York Times: 25 November 2010):

As tech decades go, this one has been a jaw-dropper. Since my first column in 2000, the tech world has not so much blossomed as exploded. Think of all the commonplace tech that didn’t even exist 10 years ago: HDTV, Blu-ray, GPS, Wi-Fi, Gmail, YouTube, iPod, iPhone, Kindle, Xbox, Wii, Facebook, Twitter, Android, online music stores, streaming movies and on and on.

With the turkey cooking, this seems like a good moment to review, to reminisce — and to distill some insight from the first decade in the new tech millennium.

Things don’t replace things; they just splinter. I can’t tell you how exhausting it is to keep hearing pundits say that some product is the “iPhone killer” or the “Kindle killer.” Listen, dudes: the history of consumer tech is branching, not replacing.

Things don’t replace things; they just add on. Sooner or later, everything goes on-demand. The last 10 years have brought a sweeping switch from tape and paper storage to digital downloads. Music, TV shows, movies, photos and now books and newspapers. We want instant access. We want it easy.

Some people’s gadgets determine their self-esteem. … Today’s gadgets are intensely personal. Your phone or camera or music player makes a statement, reflects your style and character. No wonder some people interpret criticisms of a product as a criticism of their choices. By extension, it’s a critique of them.

Everybody reads with a lens. … feelings run just as strongly in the tech realm. You can’t use the word “Apple,” “Microsoft” or “Google” in a sentence these days without stirring up emotion.

It’s not that hard to tell the winners from the losers. … There was the Microsoft Spot Watch (2003). This was a wireless wristwatch that could display your appointments and messages — but cost $10 a month, had to be recharged nightly and wouldn’t work outside your home city unless you filled out a Web form in advance.

Some concepts’ time may never come. The same “breakthrough” ideas keep surfacing — and bombing, year after year. For the love of Mike, people, nobody wants videophones!

Teenagers do not want “communicators” that do nothing but send text messages, either (AT&T Ogo, Sony Mylo, Motorola V200). People do not want to surf the Internet on their TV screens (WebTV, AOLTV, Google TV). And give it up on the stripped-down kitchen “Internet appliances” (3Com Audrey, Netpliance i-Opener, Virgin Webplayer). Nobody has ever bought one, and nobody ever will.

Forget about forever — nothing lasts a year. Of the thousands of products I’ve reviewed in 10 years, only a handful are still on the market. Oh, you can find some gadgets whose descendants are still around: iPod, BlackBerry, Internet Explorer and so on.

But it’s mind-frying to contemplate the millions of dollars and person-years that were spent on products and services that now fill the Great Tech Graveyard: Olympus M-Robe. PocketPC. Smart Display. MicroMV. MSN Explorer. Aibo. All those PlaysForSure music players, all those Palm organizers, all those GPS units you had to load up with maps from your computer.

Everybody knows that’s the way tech goes. The trick is to accept your
gadget’s obsolescence at the time you buy it…

Nobody can keep up. Everywhere I go, I meet people who express the same reaction to consumer tech today: there’s too much stuff coming too fast. It’s impossible to keep up with trends, to know what to buy, to avoid feeling left behind. They’re right. There’s never been a period of greater technological change. You couldn’t keep up with all of it if you tried.

Matthew Arnold’s 4 words that describe Homer

From Edwin Frank & Andrew McCord’s interview of Robert Fagles in “The Art of Translation No. 2” (The Paris Review: Summer 1999, No. 151):

I think it’s through that effort, trying to turn Homer into poetry, that we just may come a little closer to Matthew Arnold’s unforgettable touchstones—Homer is simple, direct, swift, and above all, noble.

14 governments the US has overthrown in 110 years

From Robert Sherrill’s “100 (Plus) Years of Regime Change” (The Texas Observer: 14 July 2006):

[Stephen Kinzer’s] Overthrow is an infuriating recitation of our government’s military bullying over the past 110 years – a century of interventions around the world that resulted in the overthrow of 14 governments – in Hawaii, Cuba, the Philippines, Puerto Rico, Vietnam, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Honduras, Panama, Chile, Iran, Grenada, Afghanistan, and … Iraq. …

Most of these coups were triggered by foreign combatants and then taken over and finished by us. But four of them, in many ways the worst of the lot, were all our own, from conspiracy to conclusion. American agents engaged in complex, well-financed campaigns to bring down the governments of Iran, Guatemala, South Vietnam, and Chile. None would have fallen – certainly not in the same way or at the same time – if Washington had not acted as it did.

Each of these four coups was launched against a government that was reasonably democratic (with the arguable exception of South Vietnam) …. They led to the fall of leaders who embraced American ideals, and the imposition of others who detested everything Americans hold dear. They were not rogue operations. Presidents, cabinet secretaries, national security advisers, and CIA directors approved them …. The first thing all four of these coups have in common is that American leaders promoted them consciously, willfully, deliberately, and in strict accordance with the laws.

Why structureless is not only impossible, but counterproductive

From Jo Freeman’s “The Tyranny of Structurelessness” (1970):

During the years in which the women’s liberation movement has been taking shape, a great emphasis has been placed on what are called leaderless, structureless groups as the main form of the movement. …

The idea of ‘structurelessness’, however, has moved from a healthy counter to these tendencies to becoming a goddess in its own right. The idea is as little examined as the term is much used, but it has become an intrinsic and unquestioned part of women’s liberation ideology. …

If the movement is to move beyond these elementary stages of development, it will have to disabuse itself of some of its prejudices about organisation and structure. There is nothing inherently bad about either of these. …

Contrary to what we would like to believe, there is no such thing as a ‘structureless’ group. Any group of people of whatever nature coming together for any length of time, for any purpose, will inevitably structure itself in some fashion. The structure may be flexible, it may vary over time, it may evenly or unevenly distribute tasks, power and resources over the members of the group. But it will be formed regardless of the abilities, personalities and intentions of the people involved. The very fact that we are individuals with different talents, predisposition’s and backgrounds makes this inevitable. Only if we refused to relate or interact on any basis whatsoever could we approximate ‘structurelessness’ and that is not the nature of a human group. …

Thus ‘structurelessness’ becomes a way of masking power, and within the women’s movement it is usually most strongly advocated by those who are the most powerful (whether they are conscious of their power or not). The rules of how decisions are made are known only to a few and awareness of power is curtailed by those who know the rules, as long as the structure of the group is informal. Those who do not know the rules and are not chosen for initiation must remain in confusion, or suffer from paranoid delusions that something is happening of which they are not quite aware. …

A structured group always has a formal structure, and may also have an informal one. An unstructured group always has an informal , or covert, structure. It is this informal structure, particularly in unstructured groups, which forms the basis for elites. …

Correctly, an elite refers to a small group of people who have power over a larger group of which they are part, usually without direct responsibility to that larger group, and often without their knowledge or consent. A person becomes an elitist by being part of, or advocating, the rule by such a small group, whether or not that individual is well-known or not known at all. Notoriety is not a definition of an elitist. The most insidious elites are usually run by people not known to the larger public at all. Intelligent elitists are usually smart enough not to allow themselves to become well- known. When they become known, they are watched, and the mask over their power is no longer firmly lodged. …

Only three techniques have ever been developed for establishing mass group opinion: the vote or referendum, the public opinion survey questionnaire and the selection of group spokespeople at an appropriate meeting. The women’s liberation movement has used none of these to communicate with the public. Neither the movement as a whole nor most of the multitudinous groups within it have established a means of explaining their position on various issues. But the public is conditioned to look for spokespeople. …

The more unstructured a movement is, the less control it has over the directions in which it develops and the political actions in which it engages. This does not mean that its ideas do not spread. Given a certain amount of interest by the media and the appropriateness of social conditions, the ideas will still be diffused widely. But diffusion of ideas does not mean they are implemented; it only means they are talked about. Insofar as they can be applied individually they may be acted upon; insofar as they require co-ordinated political power to be implemented, they will not be.

Religious moderates legitimize fundamentalism

From Steve Paulson’s “The disbeliever” (Salon: 7 July 2006):

In perhaps his most daring rhetorical gambit, Harris seeks to undermine religion by denouncing not just jihadis and fundamentalists, but moderates. “Religious moderates are, in large part, responsible for the religious conflict in our world,” he writes, “because their beliefs provide the context in which scriptural literalism and religious violence can never be adequately opposed.” Harris especially chastises moderates for refusing to criticize scripture-quoting extremists; for him, they are basically guilty of legitimizing fundamentalism. …