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September 2008
October 2008

2008-09-18 »

The future is... boring

mcote has an interesting point about the increasingly widespread hypothesis that nothing new has happened lately, specifically, "no technological advancements in the last 20-30 years have significantly changed human lives, at least in the NorthWest."

That's a strong statement. Read his article to see where it comes from.

Now I'm going to tie it to something totally unrelated that has also been annoying me lately: PC operating systems. Specifically, the Linux Hater, the Vista disaster, and articles like IE 8 consumes more RAM than Windows XP.

What the heck is going on there? I mean, the PC is from the last 20-30 years, so it's not exactly the same argument. But it's the same effect on a shorter scale: nothing really new has happened in operating systems since Windows 95. You can tell because most of your apps would still run on Windows 95, if you installed enough upgraded DLLs to make the swooshy graphics work. Where there are exceptions, there are usually just lazy programmers who didn't test(0) for or fix the minor compatibility bugs, not fundamental new technologies that weren't available back then.

That's 13 years ago. Nothing new has happened in desktop or server operating systems for 13 years. No, virtualization is not new. Yeesh.

It's because we're out of ideas. We built houses; now most houses are bigger than we need. We bought clothes; now clothes are out of fashion long before they wear out(1). We made cheaper, better food; people started eating less rice and more fat. We reduced the work week to 40 hours; now people spend their "free time" torn between idleness and stupidity. We let people retire earlier; now they get bored and start new businesses.

What's the pattern here? Technology fixes a problem, and then it overfixes it. In Canada and the U.S., we've all been safe from starvation or freezing to death for decades(2), yet food and housing development continues. Why? Because we don't know how to stop.

Computers again. We made text editors; text editors expand until they can read email. We made web browsers; now web authors spend half their time choosing an optimal shade of blue and tweaking animation timings. We made software installers with automatic downloading and dependency checking; now systems like Debian split each package into infinitesimal pieces just because they can. We made spreadsheets; they were done by 1995, so we added Clippy instead. We made fancy GUIs with detachable, customizable toolbars and subwindows; now we have non-detachable, non-customizable ribbons and tabs. We made email, then newsgroups, web forums, blogs, and now twitter; the same thing over and over.

And yet we keep trying. Technology fixes a problem, and then it overfixes it - in desktop computing just like in everything. Windows 95 was it. And if Windows 95 wasn't it, then Unix was, or MacOS. What are we still doing here?

We don't know how to stop. That's all. Linux will never succeed on the desktop because nobody needs anything new from their desktop. And technology will never change society because society doesn't know what to do except optimize itself for making more technology. Our society is already very good at that, but now China's is better. Who cares? We were too efficient already.

Let's face it: society is bored, and technology is boring.(3)

If you want something new, it's going to have to be really new.

Footnotes

(0) And rightly so. Nobody runs Windows 95.

(1) Actually, clothes don't always outlast their fashion. Nowadays clothes wear out fast, because we've invented fascinatingly cheap, delightful, weak new materials that. Nobody complains. Does it feel less wasteful this way?

(2) There is a vanishingly small fraction of people in Canada who are not safe from these things. We know this is true or they would have frozen to death already. Hmm. Okay, maybe it needs a little more work.

(3) As it happens, I am not personally bored by technology, because I'm one of the people boring you with it. Yet I still don't want a shorter work week, or to retire early, or the newest version of OpenOffice, Excel, Windows, Linux, Gnome, MacOS, or even ion.

P.S. Calling the Internet "an extension of the invention of the printing press" is like calling microelectronics "an extension of the invention of fire." It's true, but you need a new category system so you can draw useful conclusions.

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