We may be at the edge of a period when consumer technology blends more easily into our lives. Silicon-based devices like iPhones may finally yield back to the quirks of our carbon-based and biological selves.
We tend to think in terms of the greater complexities of living in our age. Phones, passwords, online accounts and the like all add to the burden of keeping our lives on track. But there is an interesting reverse trend happening in the auto industry. And it may offer a lesson for the rest of us.
Basically, cars are going to become mechanically much simpler. Newer electric cars are likely to be loaded with sensors and smart computers, but the mechanical side of an electric car is a study in simplicity. Their key advantage is that an electric motor has high torque even at slow speeds. So Teslas and the scores of new models planned by other manufacturers do not need the kinds of transmissions used now to capture a gas engine’s variable power output. This is so significant because a complex part of any conventional car is its elaborate transmission and drivetrain. By contrast, an electric motor just goes, not particularly bothered by demands for low or high-speeds. In some ways, this means a Tesla has more in common with a clothes dryer than a car driven by an internal combustion engine. If you are in the transmission business in Detroit or Osaka, that’s a problem. But it’s all good for buyers of the more inexpensive electric cars on the horizon.
In a related trend, recent reports from the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas signal a flattening of the innovation curve for digital media and devices. This year techies weren’t much impressed by what they saw in the way of new products. Apparently, a “virtual reality” headset can be about as much fun as wearing a football helmet backwards.
It would be a fool’s errand to bet against change in this field. But we may be at the edge of a period when newer devices blend more seamlessly into our lives. Innovations tend to be followed by periods of consolidation, where new inventions must meld into existing patterns of human behavior. Never completely, of course. But significantly. For example, many people who own “personal assistants,” such as Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Home, use them essentially as radios. As it turns out, these devices use streaming, to the benefit of the older medium that was once given up for dead.
If the pattern of consolidation continues, silicon-based devices like iPhones may finally yield back to the quirks of our carbon-based and biological selves. Call me an optimist, but this could mean that while we appreciate the easy of connecting to family and friends over long distances, we will also cherish the HD experience of being in the same space with them. Similarly, perhaps phone connectivity may go the way of e-mail: OK, but nothing worth spending hours on. Texts may become another form of contemporary signage: pointing us to where we want to go and who we want to meet. And tweets may finally be given the status they merit: interruptions in conversations that barely merit a second glance. At least for adults on the far side of adolescence, the durable world of unadulterated and unmediated contact may again look enticing.